Here’s some encouragement to do what you’ve been designed to do.
I was talking with a couple of pastors recently about leading in church revitalization and growth. Both of these pastors are seasoned church leaders — having far more experience in total than I have in vocational ministry.
Mostly I listened to their stories. Both are currently in difficult pastorates. One of them serves in a church that has a history of very short-term pastorates. The other is in a church that has seen a roller coaster trend in church attendance — every time they get in a season of growth its followed by a season of decline — sometimes rapid decline.
Frankly, I prefer to have conversations about opportunities and possibilities than about challenges and frustrations. But, get a few pastors in the room and there will be some war stories. Leading towards health in a church can be a battle sometimes.
Just like it’s been said numerous times — leading people is easy if it wasn’t for the people.
I tried to encourage them in their call and offered a few suggestions for them in their current situations. But, the conversation stayed on my mind for days afterwards.
A few days after this conversation, I was talking with another pastor friend reflecting on what I had heard in the previous conversation. I didn’t share names or specific situations, but it led us to a discussion about church cultures.
Every church has its own culture.
Both of the pastors in the original conversation just seemed to find themselves in some very bad church cultures.
I’ve seen lots of different cultures while consulting and working with churches for over a decade.
Regardless of what some believe — there are some healthy churches.
And, there are some who are not so healthy.
It’s always breaks my heart to encounter a church that is ready to implode. Frankly, some churches live in that tension continually. Some cultures are dangerous — toxic even.
Why do some churches seem to have such a hard time keeping church staff for any significant length of time? It usually has something to do with the culture of the church.
Why are some churches more resistant to change than others? It will almost always reflect back to the culture of the church.
Why do some churches have a history of church splits? Culture.
This friend in the second conversation said to me, “There’s a blog post for you. You need to talk about some of those dangerous cultures.”
Sadly, according to numerous statistics, more churches are in decline or have plateaued than are growing. Certainly not all growing churches are healthy. I would never define a “healthy” church exclusively as growing church. I do believe, however, most healthy churches will eventually grow.
Some of that health in a church depends on the culture of the church. How do people respond to church leadership? How do they respond to each other? How do they react to change? How are decisions made? What upsets people most? What is the atmosphere — the mood — of the church during the week and on Sunday? How does the church treat vocational staff?
All those are usually relative to and indicative of church culture.
So, I decided to post about some of the more dangerous church cultures I have observed. Most likely you’ll have some of your own to share.
Selfish – Some churches are filled with people who just think they have to have it their way. And they fold her hands — and sometimes hold their money – – until they get it.
Prideful – This is a culture that is proud of their heritage — which is a good thing — but is resting on their laurels. They refuse to realize it’s no longer the “good ole days”. Their pride keeps in the past keeps them from embracing the future. They resist any ideas that are different from the way things have always been done.
Rigid – A rigid culture would never kill something — even if it isn’t working. These churches do tradition well. They don’t do change well. Try to change — and it’ll be the death of you.
Cliquish – I’ve heard this from so many people who felt they just couldn’t break into the already established groups within the church. In this culture, it takes years for people to feel included, find a place of service, or begin to lose the “new person” label.
Bullying – Sometimes this is disguised and called church discipline, but in some of the stories I’ve heard I would tend to call it legalistic. If it’s a “one strike you’re out” culture or people are made to feel they can’t be real about their struggles for fear of retribution — the picture of grace that Christ died on the cross to provide is diminished. People are encouraged to put on masks to hide their struggles.
Stingy – In this culture, there is a greater concern that the balance sheet look attractive than meeting the needs that God brings their way. This church rarely walks by faith because that seems too irresponsible.
Depraved – This one may in some ways be a summary of the previous six — because there is sin in all of these cultures — but I wanted to expose it on it’s own. If the Bible is left in the rack attached to the pew and no longer the foundation guide for the church — the culture will obviously suffer. Church culture can begin to decay whenever the focus is more on things like money, programs, buildings , even worship style — as good as all of those can be — rather than on living our lives as children of God for the glory of God. Whatever distracts us from the very core of the church — our Gospel mission and calling — will injure our church culture.
Those are from my observations.
What dangerous cultures have you seen?
I should mention again — especially to those outside the church, those who have experienced pain from these type churches, or those entering into the ministry in whom I may have raised caution — there are healthy churches. There are healthy church cultures. There are no perfect churches, but there are some who have staff with long tenures, where change is manageable and where people truly live out the Biblical model of church.
And, as someone who loves the local church, that’s where I hope to lend help through this blog in the majority of posts I share.
In a future post I will try to expand on some thoughts and experience I have in helping to change church cultures.
I’ve always been captivated by the friends of Job.
You remember Job. The man of suffering. He suffered the loss of everything.
Somewhere in the grief process his friends came. Start about Chapter 2. They provide a bulk of dialogue in the book.
We can learn a few things about how to be friends to those who are hurting from the friends of Job.
Thanks for showing up. Sometimes physical presence is the most comforting way to help someone grieve a loss. You came when it was uncomfortable to be a friend. That’s when a true friend is found. You even sat with him — apparently not even eating — for seven days. Thank you. Your witness is well-noted.
Speak truth. Not what everyone else is saying. Some in your culture believed that all suffering was the result of sin. We know that’s not true about Job. You said some things that sounded good. Culturally acceptable things. But it’s usually best not to provide commentary. Just say what is true. Nothing more. Sometimes that’s only stuff like, “Wow! You’re hurting. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m here for you!”
Not everything has to be explained. You had a lot of “ideas” why Job was suffering. Thanks for your insight. You just couldn’t possibly understand all that God was allowing in Job’s life nor could you predict his final outcome. Sometimes explanations are more burdensome than they are helpful in a time of grief.
Silence isn’t deadly. Seriously. Sometimes silence is gold. Even godly. Look at Ecclesiastes 5:2 for an example. You did that — before you started talking. The days you were silent were possibly as much help to Job as anything you did. It was your presence. Don’t be afraid just to demonstrate your love with your presence more than with your words.
You help me better understand the Bible. The Bible is true. All of it. Cover to cover. I believe that. I know that in the core of my being. Everything in the Bible is truth. But not everything in the Bible is true. It’s truth in that it’s God’s written word. It’s not true unless God said it. Man talks in the Bible. So does the evil one. Some of the things you said weren’t true. You meant well. But, it’s not truth unless it comes from God’s mouth or it amplifies His truth.
So I learn from you — Job’s friends. Thank you.
I must be present when my friends are hurting most. I must not try to explain everything. I must not think everything needs my input or my attempt at a solution. I must be okay with silence. I must not take what I’ve heard — or what’s culturally acceptable — as an indication of truth. I must stick with the Scriptures and an accurate interpretation of them.
And, when I don’t know truth to share — I’ll just be silent. And, be present. Fully present.
Jesus was specific about what it takes to be a good disciple. This isn’t a guessing game.
If we want to mature in our walk with Christ, we should pay close attention.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
First, we must deny ourselves
Jesus is not saying here that we should not own anything. Or want nice things. He is asking us to line our desires with His desires — even when they conflict with our desires. He is asking us to prioritize our life — with God and others in mind. (The first and greatest command — and the second is like it.) In denying ourselves, we are to look to Jesus and not unto our own abilities. Trusting Him when we can’t find our way without Him. That apart from Him, we can do nothing. Deny our fears. Deny our inabilities. Deny our sinful temptations by the power of the Gospel. Deny me — for Him — knowing I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Second, we must take up our cross
I don’t have a cross. At least not literally. But Jesus is encouraging us to carry forth His cross. His agenda. His mission. We are to be the salt of the Earth. We are to spread the Good News. We are to be Christ’s ambassadors to the world, as others see Jesus in us. The message and wonder of the cross — the Gospel — is to be evident in us. We should love the unlovable. Forgive the ones who don’t deserve forgiveness. Extend grace. Attempt to bring reconciliation through Christ. His cross.
Third, we must follow Him
That may seem like the easiest, but it is perhaps the most difficult. It would be easier to write a bunch of rules of what a good little Christian should look like. But, we’d only mess that up into some sort of legalism. Michael Yaconelli once wrote, “Jesus said follow me’, not ‘Follow my rules.” I remember when I was younger playing “follow the leader”. The guy in front made all the moves. The object was to follow the leader exactly. It was usually easier in looks than in practice. Jesus is our leader and every day we need to mimic the Savior. It won’t always be easy. Culture will work against us. Some in the church will still want to write more rules. But Jesus following will always be best. It’s part of being a disciple. In fact, it IS being a disciple.
Which of these three steps do you most need to apply to your life today?
I have the opportunity to sit with many people who are experiencing disappointment in life. Many times, even when we are doing the best we know how, we find ourselves disappointed with where we find ourselves in life at the time.
Life happens. It could be tragedy or a minor set back, but it hurts. Pain is always relative to context. And, if we don’t know how to respond we can have a very hard time recovering.
Having faced disappointment many times in my own life, I’ve learned a few things about navigating through these times. I hope some of my wisdom gleaned through experience can help you.
Keep your heart close to God. That’s important always, but especially during times of disappointment. The Psalmist said, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” God is most likely at work in ways you cannot presently see or understand. Often disappointment ushers in some of the greatest seasons of God for your life. Don’t miss it by not listening to Him.
Wait for your emotions to heal before you make major decisions. Recall how the prophet Elijah was ready to die during a difficult period. (1 Kings 19) Yet God still had great plans for his life and ministry. We tend to make irrational decisions immediately following times of disappointment. Let some time pass and make sure you are thinking rational again before you implement major changes in your life.
Don’t quit doing what you know to do. While you shouldn’t make major changes, an equally dangerous tendency to give up or stall until the next opportunity arrives or life gets “easier”. You may need a resting period, but keep your mind and hands busy doing what there is to do today. It will help protect your heart and mind from the attack of fears and doubts. And, do things that keep you alive and healthy. Eat, sleep, exercise.
Don’t allow a disappointment to determine your sense of self-worth. Read many of David’s Psalms. (22, 69, and 121 are a few of my favorites.) You can read his despair — then as He reminds himself of God’s love and faithfulness — he is restored. Be restored who you are as a child of God. Beloved. Let God and the people who know you best help determine your worth. It’s monumental worth. Yes, even today! You don’t have to be defined by your disappointment.
(And, be on the lookout for signs of severe depression. Things like withdrawal, constant feelings of despair, severe worry, not eating, dark fears or thoughts, etc. Don’t resist professional help.)
Remember, you are not alone. Even though it may feel that way. Back to the story of Elijah, he couldn’t see it at the time, but God had reserved an army of supporters for him. Disappointments are a part of everyone’s experience. There is likely someone who has experienced the same type disappointment. Don’t be afraid to find them and let them walk through this period with you. (This is not a time to remove yourself from the church community — this is a time to find real, life-giving community.)
Learn everything you can from this period. No one welcomes disappointment, yet most who have experienced them learn some of life’s best lessons during those times. Even failure can be a great teacher. Don’t miss the value of experience.
Move forward when opportunity presents itself. Too many people become paralyzed after a period of disappointment, refusing to ever move forward again. Living an abundant life requires risk-taking. Dreaming again. Loving again. Ultimately, to be obedient to God’s call on your life, you will have to walk by faith again. If you ever hope to escape the moment of disappointment — when the time is right — and you’ve grieved your loss or disappointment sufficiently — get on with life.
Learning how to handle disappointments will make your life better. Eventually, God will — if you allow Him to — grant you the privilege of helping others who experience disappointment.
What wisdom have you gleaned from times of disappointment?
The statistics on the longevity of pastors isn’t encouraging. A major survey of pastors says 80 percent leave the ministry within five years.(1) Jimmy Draper, former president of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and former president of Lifeway Research Group, observed that for every twenty people who enter the ministry, only one retires from it.(2) That’s only a 5 percent retention rate.
I don’t know any leaders—of churches, businesses, or nonprofit organizations—who haven’t thought about quitting at some point. Leadership is a magnet for pain, and sometimes our capacity to endure is severely challenged. We can receive some encouragement by looking at the world of sports.
Tom Fleming, a two-time winner of the New York City Marathon and now a coach, described his mind-set in races: “I was given a body that could train every single day, and a mind, a mentality, that believed that if I trained every day—and I could train every day—I’ll beat you. The mentality was I will do whatever it takes to win. I was totally willing to have the worst pain. I was totally willing to do whatever it takes to win the race.”
Sports doctors have analyzed the tenacity of the best marathon runners. Dr. Jeroen Swart, who works for the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, concluded, “Some think elite athletes have an easy time of it,” but that’s a wrong assumption. “It never gets easier” as your time improves. “You hurt just as much.” Accepting the reality of pervasive pain, he explained, leads to more realistic expectations and faster times:
“Knowing how to accept [the reality of the pain] allows people to improve their performance.”
During points in races when the pain is most intense, some runners tend to dissociate, to try to distract themselves from the pain by thinking of something else. This strategy seems to work for a while, but sooner or later they hit a mental wall that hinders their efficiency. In contrast, Dr. Swart discovered, the best long-distance athletes concentrate even more intensely on their running, cycling, or swimming when they experience grueling pain. He concluded, “Our hypothesis is that elite athletes are able to motivate themselves continuously and are able to run the gauntlet between pushing too hard—and failing to finish—and underperforming.”
The best of these athletes don’t avoid the pain; they push into it and past it.(3)
When we’re in pain we quickly notice the default setting on the human heart: run, blame, smother the hurt in busyness, or act like nothing’s wrong. To persevere, we need a vision for the future that’s bigger than our pain. We may not see it clearly, and we may not like the process of getting there, but we have to be convinced in the depths of our hearts that enduring the pain will someday be worth it. This confidence enables us to raise the threshold of pain so we can respond with courage and hope.
Wayne Cordiero wrote an eye-opening and challenging book, Sifted: Pursuing Growth Through Trials, Challenges, and Disappointments. He insisted that all Christians, especially leaders, go through a necessary process of sifting. He identified it this way: “The process of sifting, coming to that moment when our strength is spent, is how God builds our faith. It’s a process that forms new character, tearing away old perspectives and putting fresh truth in its place. Former habits are discarded and wrong tendencies abandoned.”(4)
Failure isn’t the end of the world for those who are open to God’s tender, strong hand. It’s the beginning of a new wave of insight, creativity, and effectiveness—but only if we pay attention and learn the lessons God has for us. When we receive a vision from God, we’re excited, and we dream about the steps it will take to fulfill it. We generally assume God will supply everything to accomplish the goal he’s given to us, but we often fail to realize that he needs to do a deeper work in us so we can do what he has called us to do. And the way he works deeply in us is through all kinds of opposition, stress, heartache, loss, and obstacles. In other words, God works most powerfully in and through our failures.
Do we face opposition? The civil and religious authorities opposed Jesus at every turn. Do we encounter evil in all its forms? Satan himself tempted him? Do we feel betrayed and abandoned? The crowds that yelled “Hosanna!” soon cried, “Crucify him!”
And almost all of his best friends ran for their lives at his greatest hour of need. Do we feel misunderstood? The Lord of glory stepped out of heaven to rescue sinful people, and they killed him. Do we feel vulnerable? He was stripped, beaten, and hung on a cross in public humiliation. Why did he do all this? Out of love for the very ones who had run away from him, who had driven spikes into his hands, and who jeered him as he hung on the cross.
People like you and me.
When we feel like quitting, we can think about Jesus. In the greatest act of love ever known, when he was unjustly dying for those who despised him, he could have come down from the cross and killed them all—but he stayed where he was placed.
1. Fuller Institute, George Barna, and Pastoral Care Inc., “Why Pastors Leave the
Ministry,” July 21, 2009, http://freebelievers.com/article/why-pastors-leave-the-ministry.
2. See J. D. Greear, “Why You Should Pray for Your Pastor, and President Obama,” Archives for Leadership, www.jdgreear.com/my_weblog/category/leadership/page/10.
3. Gina Kolata, “How to Push Past the Pain, as the Champions Do,” New York Times, October 18, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/health/nutrition/19best.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
4. Wayne Cordiero with Frances Chan and Larry Osborne, Sifted: Pursuing Growth Through Trials, Challenges, and Disappointments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 10.
I occasionally like to correct a myth I have heard all my life.
How many times has someone said to you, “God will never put more (trials) on you than you can bear”?
I challenge you to show me that in the Bible.
The problem I have with that lie is that — as innocently as it is given — even offered mostly as encouragement — is that it’s not encouraging at all.
The myth makes so many believers wonder why they can’t handle their problems — falsely believing they should be able to — because someone once told them the lie that God would not put more on them than they could handle.
Than THEY could handle. And, that’s the key problem with that phrase.
Yes, we do have the promise that we will not be “tempted beyond what you can bear” (1 Corinthians 10:13), but we need to understand what that verse is saying. It says that God will not allow Satan to bring temptation, or enticement to sin, into our life where is too much for us to say no to it. When we are tempted to sin, God will make a way for us to resist it — through His Holy Spirit in us. God wants us to live holy — just as Christ who calls us is holy — and so He provided a Helper for us to resist temptation.
But, that verse has nothing to do with the amount of struggles we will face as believers.
Consistently, throughout the Bible, I read where God allowed more trials, more pressure, than His children could bear.
Elijah, the powerful prophet of God who held back the rain had a time when the trial must have been bigger than his ability to handle it. Consider this verse: “The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” (1 Kings 19:7)
Once when Paul wrote to the people at Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:8), he told them that he and his followers faced trials “far beyond our ability to endure“.
David, the great war hero and man after God’s own heart, told the Lord that “troubles without number surround me” and “and I cannot see“. He couldn’t see clearly, because he was overwhelmed with the storms of life!
Another time David said “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.”(Oh how I identify with David there!)
Jehoshaphat prayed, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12) It sounds like he was facing more than he could handle — on his own.
Are there times when God allows more troubles in your life than you can bear? Absolutely! Positively!
If you can accept my testimony as an example, let me tell you that sometimes life throws more at me than I can handle — at least more than I can handle alone. I can’t do it in my own strength. I can’t.
The reason God allows you and I to experience times when we are consumed by trials — when they are bigger than our own strength can handle — is so that we have no where else to turn except towards Him. We are faced with one solution — and that is to realize Christ is our only hope! He is our solution.
After Paul wrote that his trial was bigger than his ability to endure, he offers an explanation. “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9)
There it is! That’s the ticket! Paul recognized truth — that this overwhelming time of trouble — that he couldn’t handle alone — had caused him to focus more on the power of God and allow God to work His perfect will in Paul’s life.
And, that is God’s desired reality in our life. He wants us to fully rely on Him.
Are you being challenged beyond your ability to endure?
Don’t believe that you can do it alone! You can’t! You must not try!
Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing!” Did you get that point? Nothing!
Don’t try anything today without relying on the power of God! He knows you’re weak. He is available to help — if you will call upon Him! When we are at our weakest — He is strong!
(I wrote this post over 6 years ago. I have now edited it and brought it forward.)
One of the toughest jobs in the church is that of being a pastor’s wife.
It has been called the loneliest job in the church.
No doubt I have one of the best. Cheryl has a professional job as an accountant, is an excellent mom and wife, but the demands on her as my wife are some of the most overwhelming.
Still she handles it with grace and a smile.
In this post, I want to help you know how to honor and protect your pastor’s wife.
Truthfully, I am not talking on behalf of Cheryl. She would never ask for this and frankly we are mostly in a good church environment as far as the way our staff and spouses are treated. Plus, we came out of the business world into ministry. We were older and more seasoned by life, so we’ve always approached things differently — protected our personal time more. Sunday is Cheryl’s favorite day of the week.
I know, however, because of my work with pastors that many pastor’s wives are facing burnout, a sense of loneliness, and some even struggle to come to church. That should not be.
Do not put too many expectations on her.
Regardless of the church size, she cannot be everywhere, at everything and know everyone’s name and family situation and still carry out her role in the home. She simply can’t. Don’t expect her to be super-human.
Do not expect her to oppose her husband.
She will be protective of her spouse. Hopefully you would equally protect your spouse. If you bad mouth her husband she’s likely to respond in a way you don’t want her to — but should expect her to. Don’t complain if she does.
Protect her from gossip.
She does not need to know the “prayer concerns” that are really just a way of spreading rumors. And, you know when that’s the case. Check your motives in what you share. Don’t share what you don’t have permission to share.
Let her have a family.
The pastor is pulled in many directions. The family understands the nature of the job. Life doesn’t happen on a schedule. But, in reality, there are often unreasonable demands on the pastor. That always impacts the family. If you can — limit your demands to normal working hours for the church and the pastor. Send an email rather than calling at home if it’s not an immediate concern. It will help the pastor have a family life.
Include her without placing demands or expectations on her.
That’s the delicate balance. The pastor’s wife is often one of the loneliest women in the church. She rarely knows whom to trust and often is excluded from times that are just for fun. Don’t be afraid to treat her as a normal human being. She is. But, if she says no — don’t hold it against her either.
Never repeat what she says.
Ever. If the pastor’s wife happens to share information with you about the church or her personal life, keep it to yourself. Always. There will be temptation to share her words as “juicy news”, but you will honor her by remaining silent. And, over time, you will build her trust and her friendship.
Pray for your pastor’s family.
Daily would be awesome. And much needed.
Finally, if your church really wants to honor the pastor’s wife, find ways to give her time away with her husband and/or family. That is probably what she needs the most.
Feel free to give a shout-out to your pastor’s wife here and share practical ways you can honor your pastor’s wife. If you are a pastor or pastor’s wife, I would love to hear your thoughts.
(Two closing notes. First, these may work equally well for the husband of a pastor or minister, but I can only speak from my perspective. Second, I’ve been told numerous times that a pastor’s wife IS the problem in the church. That’s the subject of another post, but I do understand and recognize that there are times this is the problem. It is very difficult for a pastor to be effective without a supportive spouse.)