Archive for April, 2018

Subject to Change – 2

The slightly ornery phrasing of this set of blogs suggests that being on the receiving end of change isn’t always fun. But, my intent is to suggest that those in the pew have some real input to offer to their shepherd as he leads them toward a new day, a reality I have discovered to be true again and again.

The first of these unexpected insights is that we may not be wanting the same things.

What do you suppose sheep want in a shepherd relationship? Now, I realize that nobody really asks such questions of barnyard animals, partly because of the single-syllable vocabularies of wool producers and partly because talking to animals is one childhood dream that can end in adulthood incarceration. If sheep are answering your questions, farming may not be for you.

But if we could coil ourselves inside the tiny cubby-hole where sheep intellect quietly dwells, what would we learn about their goals for their shepherd? My guess would be that green grass and quiet streams where the current doesn’t threaten to topple you off of your leg of lambs would top the list. “Take care of us,” is the most likely translation of that Baaa sound.

Good shepherds oblige, but they often have a different set of goals. They want to preserve the sheep, helping them grow healthy while somehow maintaining their spotlessness, but they also want to grow the flock. Bigger flocks often indicate better shepherds. Old Testament stories show Abraham, nephew Lot, son Isaac, and even grandson Jacob established their wealth through sheep multiplication.

Sheep and shepherd pursuing different passions in the midst of their relationship can create some challenges. I’m guessing that sheep don’t typically mind having other sheep around provided the grass and water are abundant. Still, it’s likely that the shepherd celebrates new members of the flock a little more exuberantly. Sheep don’t throw baby showers.

When we trade the barnyard for the sanctuary, this potential disconnect comes into practical focus. Not long ago, I met with the leadership team of a smaller congregation as they were preparing to welcome their new pastor. I had spoken with the new “shepherd” a few days earlier and I marveled at his excitement, knowing that his most recent predecessors in this role had struggled a great deal. History wasn’t really on his side, but his dream of building a great church and reaching his community in creative ways was captivating. Maybe he’s the one, I told myself. Like Yoda and the other Jedi masters around the presbytery table, I wanted to believe that balance might have come to their Force as long as he’d be careful not to get too forceful.

Problem is, the people had a different agenda. Yes, they wanted to experience God’s future and see their church reach the full potential their founders had dreamed about and prayed for a half-century ago. These are good people and they would never say “No” to the Great Commission, but I knew that their enthusiasm for this moment of decision centered on having a pastor, a shepherd, one who would care for them and nourish them from God’s Word. They treasured what is and what had been while I knew that his eyes were searching elsewhere for what could be. And in a matter of minutes I could see that their enthusiasms weren’t for the same path.

Here’s the first intersection of change and trouble. Pastor and people try to imagine they’re on the same road when they’re actually seeking different destinations. He dreams of larger flocks and producing enough wool to warm the entire village. They long for greener grass and cool, refreshing drinks at crystal pools. He pleads with them to help him chase down more sheep, and they beg him not to forget that they’re sheep too.

Truth is, they’re both right. Jesus’ clear vision for His Church is ever expanding, seeking to fulfill His Commission within its community and beyond, and at the same time loving one another, nourishing each other with His wisdom and caring for every little lamb with a need. Sadly the pastor and the people seemed to each have a different half of the playbook. Two very different goals, two remarkably distinct directions, and two agendas that often bring a confusing “why” to the issue of change.

Now, the danger in identifying these two conflicting ideas is the accusation of making them sound mutually exclusive. Pastors with their eyes on church growth aren’t calloused to or disinterested in the needs of the existing congregation. Such an assumption would be unfair. And it would be just as careless to imply that the congregation is so consumer-driven that they don’t really care about anyone else’s healthy life plan or eternal hotel reservations.

Yet, when there is change conflict in a church, those are often the colors chosen to paint one another into corners. And suddenly it seems that the amplifiers have been shut off, turning Jesus’ command to love one another into little more than a feint whisper. Frankly, if you’re chasing different finish lines, that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible runner. It just means you and your friend probably aren’t running side-by-side.

Subject to Change – 1

April 23, 2018 1 comment

I peeked behind the curtain…

No, this is not a confession of some sort of voyeuristic escapade. I’m a Midwesterner, and peeking behind the curtain is a euphemism that means we like to uncover the real story, see what’s happening beyond what’s visible, or crack the code to see how things work.

You might remember my fellow Kansan, Dorothy. She was a peeker too. Standing amidst the overpowering display in the throne room of the Great and Powerful Oz, Dorothy–in true Midwestern form–pulled back the curtain to find the real story. Okay, actually she was trying to find Toto, who had initiated this journey of curiosity. Still, she overcame her own timidness with her desperate desire to get back home and suddenly she could see the real story behind the amazing Oz. A small, somewhat chubby man, pushing buttons, pulling levers, and speaking into a microphone larger than his own head. In that moment she uncovered one of life-s great truths–add a little reverb and you can sound all-powerful.

Now, let me get back to the curtain I pulled back. Dorothy was disappointed in what she saw, but I was only surprised. Like Auntie Em’s favorite niece, I had been prepared to see something, but saw something else.

You see, I’ve attended numerous pastors’ conferences, drained thousands of coffee cups with fellow pulpiteers, and listened to the dreams of hundreds of these would-be world changers. And, quite frequently, their stories often describe the resistance to their efforts in less than flattering tones. These are the enemies of change, the status quo protectors gathered around deacon room tables. I’ve had the scowling faces of future preventers described in such detail that I had clearly envisioned the veins popping from their heads. Churches don’t change because the people won’t let them change.

Then I pulled back the curtain…

Actually, I began working with churches and the people inside them. I started sitting at their tables, listening to their attitudes, and surprisingly saw very few of those popping veins. Instead, I saw passionate people, some even desperate to see a new day for their church. I met folks who wanted to reach their communities every bit as much as the pastor who led them. I encountered people who were waiting for some powerful character to pull the right lever for them and they seemed quite ready to click their ruby red dress shoes together to get there.

More often than not, the portrait of control-freak deacon or stern church matriarch proved inaccurate. Sure, there are a few out there, but even most of them aren’t out to control the church. Many have just exerted a bit more effort to make sure that some painful and confusing event that occurred a while back never happens to them or their church again.

I discovered that the stories, like Oz’s frightening head, had been a bit embellished for effect. No, my pastor friends weren’t lying (and neither was I when it was my turn to talk), it’s just that many of us hadn’t figured out how to lead these folks effectively yet. We stepped into a story we didn’t start and struggled with our willingness to invest the kind of time it would take to really catch up. So, our impatience and our people’s caution mixed a volatile brew–the kind that has your eyes playing tricks on you.

Most church people are really good people who want really good things for their church–God things. They can quote the Great Commission too, and they really want to live it. It’s just that when you live in the passenger seat and you’ve been driving in circles for awhile, it’s hard not to comment on the latest turn, especially when the road looks too familiar. Hard to blame them, and I can understand why their doubts irritate the latest driver.

But the point is that these are good folks and they need to be led to the future effectively. So, over the next several weeks, I’m going to write about what change is like from the passenger seat, what we can learn from that side of the windshield, and how we can get where we both really want to go together. I’m calling this series of blogs “Subject to Change” ’cause that’s what many congregations are–they are subject to our repeated and occasionally clumsy efforts to bring change to their world.

Stay tuned…

Biblical Conflict Strategy – A Requirement for a Healthy Church

Thus far, we’ve considered the kind of people that we need for a healthy church, but before we leave this discussion, we must consider how those people interact with each other–specifically, how do they respond when difficulty arises.

Unresolved conflict is the bane of many unhealthy congregations. Issues hang in the air like a heavy fog. In such places, olefactory fatigue has set in. This odd condition is what occurs when you’ve smelled something for so long that you can’t smell it anymore. And in many unhealthy churches, the stench of unresolved conflict has been there so long that we are barely aware of how it wafts through the sanctuary. We just know that brother so-and-so doesn’t speak to certain people, and so we try not to corner him with his “enemies” having given up on fixing this long ago. Instead, we pretend there’s no problem and we smile for our guests, hoping they don’t discover what’s seething beneath our congregational surface.

Doesn’t work. Guests in your church can smell that something’s up, and they aren’t as willing to live in the smell of stories they weren’t here to experience or get used to.

So every church needs a conflict strategy–and the good news is that Jesus gave us one. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus explains that if a brother has offended us or fallen into sin, we run toward him, not away from him. We look to restore him directly, and if our efforts don’t succeed, we engage the help of friends and leaders. The goal is to resolve and rescue, to put an end to the issue in as healthy a manner as possible.

Unfortunately, many people run the wrong direction. They don’t go toward the one in need. Instead they go to others, whispering about the offense or trying to build a coalition on their side of the conflict. And in so doing, they enlarge the issue until it would take a meeting with hundreds to finally put the matter to rest.

A biblical conflict strategy limits the number who are involved or even aware of the matter to those who have been directly affected. Others don’t need to know or be involved. The fewer people who must live with the issue, the greater the potential for healthy resolution. That’s why Jesus’ first step is toward the one who has offended us.

Pastors in healthy churches preach on healthy conflict strategies frequently. They know that if they can equip their people to run in the right direction in conflict, healthy relationships will result. And, the pastor won’t be needed to referee or solve an escalating conflict nearly as often. I preached from Matthew 18 once a year, using new approaches each time to hide my repetitive focus. Once I tackled this with puppets on mic stands. People found the blue puppet’s divisive behavior appalling and felt sorry for the offending green puppet, laughing their way to truth, at least until they realized how often they’d been that blue guy.

The point is, as a ministry leader the subject of healthy strategies for conflict must have significant focus in your congregation if you’re going to have a healthy church. Matthew 18’s wisdom can only be experienced with intentional effort. And when what we learn on Sundays leaks into our family life on Mondays, well, you may just cut your pastoral counseling time in half.

Healthy churches are growing healthy people and there may be no place where that’s more evident than in the management of conflict.

Outward-Focused Ministries – A Requirement for a Healthy Church

April 2, 2018 2 comments

When I was a kid, I liked playing with baseball cards, watching television or reading a good book, but my dad wasn’t always on board with my preferred ways to spend my leisure time. He would come home from work and tell me to “Go outside!” Now, he wasn’t trying to get rid of me, but he was convinced that fresh air was healthy for every boy. So I would reluctantly obey, and soon find myself have a great time with the neighbor kids.

Most of us have heard or even used the Dead Sea illustration. We know that while water flows into that sea, it has no means of flowing out. So the water sits, accumulates all of its salt in that one place–and nothing can live in it. Hence the name–Dead Sea. The water needs to “get outside” but it can’t and it doesn’t.

Too many churches are functioning in a similar fashion. While the occasional potential for new life flows in, all the activity is inside–no ministry flows outside the walls. The result? Dead Church.

If you want a healthy church, then outward focus is your recipe. The more we aim our ministries and our people into the community, the healthier and more effective our church will become. Inward focus fills the church with disease. Like the Sea, if the salt stays put, it just accumulates until even what’s inside begins to die.

But an outward-focused church constantly lives in the mission of Jesus. They encounter the brokenness of their community and connect with the needs that surround them–just like Jesus did. They can’t help but give their resources to help others, because the compassion of Christ is growing within them. They are becoming servants, because they are encountering the need to serve.

Outward-focused churches quarrel less and give more. When you’re making a difference, you don’t need to sit around and grumble at one another. Instead, you see opportunities for impact and can’t help but want to give to help.

Think of it this way: If you stopped by your grandmother’s house and found her yard had grown to knee-deep levels, you’d run home and get your mower. Well, when people reach into their community and encounter needs they have the means to meet, they give what they have to help get the job done. Churches on a mission have a way of attracting people who are looking for a mission.

So, what if you took some of your best ministries outside your four walls? What if you let your best Sunday school teacher take a quarter off so she could teach a parenting class on Thursday nights in a nearby community building? What if you took your excellent musicians and held a mini-concert in a local park? What if you aimed your church’s excellent cooks toward the local elementary school and filled the teacher’s lounge with their best baked goods? Take what you do well, and go outside with it.

When we begin to flow out into our community, something wonderful happens–we get healthier inside the church. People begin to rediscover purpose and God is able to use us to impact others, just as He intended when He established His Church.

So if you want a healthy church, go play outside.