Month: January 2009

Joint Community Services Provide 4 Benefits

The four Chatham pastors — Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian — met today to discuss our joint lenten services.  We’ll have a simple dinner and 30-minute service each of the five Wednesday evenings during lent.  We also have a community thanksgiving service, community Holy Week services, and a joint vacation Bible school.  Here are the 4 benefits these services provide:

  1. Larger attendance.  This may be obvious and is not very spiritual, but frankly a larger group at these services encourages everyone.   Rather than 4 services with a handful each, we have one service with good participation.  
  2. Shared traditions.  Baptists and Presbyterians get to take communion by intinction at the altar when we worship with the Methodists or Episcopalians.  Because the four pastors also share preaching responsibilities at each other’s church, we learn from each other about different worship practices, liturgical symbolism, and theological distinctives. 
  3. Common faith.  Despite our liturgical and theological differences, community services highlight our common Christian faith.  We are all Christians who love and serve the same God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
  4. Good fellowship.  Several of these events involve table fellowship — eating, in other words.  We enjoy seeing our neighbors at these events and it helps foster continued friendships. 

Joint community services work in our small town.  They may not work as well in other settings, but these ecumenical events build stronger bonds in our community.  What do you do with other denominations or groups?  How do you bridge theological and liturgical differences?

The sheep are coming

sheep_racingLast Sunday we received two new members — a wonderful young couple who moved to our community to restore an old family home out in our county.  One of the discouraging aspects of small church ministry is a lack of new members, so we were glad to have Amy and Richard join with us.  But, let me tell you a story that God used to encourage me about new members two years’ ago. 

Debbie and I were praying one morning after discussing how discouraged we were because we were reaching so few new people.  

Now this is where the story gets weird. I want you to know that I think this part is weird, so you will realize that this doesn’t happen to me all the time. In our praying about what we should do, Debbie kept telling me to be patient that the “sheep were coming.” It didn’t look like the sheep were coming to me, but she assured me they were.

One night not long after that, I had a dream. I saw the letters S-A-U-B-R-I-G in big block letters, like they had been printed on a large sheet of paper. That was it — “saubrig.”  When I woke up, I wrote the letters down because I felt there was some significance to them. But what?

So I did what anybody does now — I turned on my computer and googled, S-A-U-B-R-I-G. What I got back were a bunch of references in some foreign language that I did not recognize. But one entry was in English. It was an article about ancient Yorkshire surnames and place names. Not exciting reading, but as I scrolled down through the article, there it was — the word saubrig. Only it was two words — sau brig.  

Let me read you the article at this point –

Sau (pronounced sow) in Scandinavian is sheep. Brig is a dock, or trading post area. Perhaps it [sau brig] was an old way of describing a ‘sheeptown’s dock’ or, gathering point – the Saubrig…

Isn’t that amazing? And that settled it for me. I knew that in spite of my mistakes that God was still at work.  This is the sheeptown’s dock, the gathering point. I believe the sheep are coming. I believe they are coming here to this place, to this town, to this church, to our community, to this congregation.

I included this story in a sermon I preached last year, and the story seemed to encourage some of our members, too.  Right now, we have about a dozen new members pending.  That’s huge for us and I do believe the sheep are coming. They don’t come in our timing, only God’s.  So if you’re discouraged that you’re not reaching people fast enough, be patient.  The sheep are coming, you just don’t know them yet.

Prayers for a new president

The prayers of a nation are with you, Mr. President.  

officialportrait1I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.   — 1 Timothy 2:1-4

How I prepare for a memorial service

A memorial service  should accomplish two things — it should bring comfort to the family, and it should connect with the life of the deceased.  To meet those two criteria, I ask the family to help me by providing these 6 things:

  1. Scripture passages.  I ask if they have scripture passages that hold special meaning for them.  I do not promise I will use all the passages, but they usually give me a place to start in message preparation.
  2. The Bible that belonged to their loved one.  I have asked if the family would like for me to read from their loved one’s Bible. Some do not have a Bible they have used frequently, and I move on. 
  3. Stories. I am looking for stories that characterize their loved one’s life.  These can be funny, serious, spiritual, or everyday stories but they need to capture some aspect of the person’s life.  I always ask if I can share that at the service.  Sometimes people tell you stories as a part of their griefwork, but they do not want them told publicly.
  4. Hymns or songs.  In our community we get requests mostly for  traditional hymns like In The Garden or Amazing Grace.   Some families may select recorded songs that may or may not be apppropriate, but you can guide the family to use music that honors both God and the individual’s memory.  I conducted a teenager’s  funeral years ago, and the family played heavy metal music prior to the service.  I thought someone at the funeral home had a radio on.  I complained to the manager, who informed me that this was the family’s request.  I would have tried to steer them to a more appropriate means of honoring their son. 
  5. Poems, prayers, or readings.  Some families want a special poem, prayer, or reading used during the service.  I try to accomodate those requests as often as I can.
  6. Eulogies.  Often families want to give an opportunity for others at the service to share their memories with the congregation.  I suggest that one or two of these be planned so there is not a long period of silence while waiting.  

If you’re a pastor, you probably have a similar list of helps that you’re looking for when you prepare for a funeral or memorial service.  What questions do you ask?  How do you connect the service with the life of the person being remembered?

Sermon: Seeing Greater Things

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from John 1:43-51 about Jesus calling Nathanael.  There’s a great story from David Augsburger’s book at the end. I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s day!

Seeing Greater Things

John 1:43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

 44Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.45Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

 46“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. 
      “Come and see,” said Philip.

 47When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

 48“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. 
      Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

 49Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

 50Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” 51He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

A Skeptic Gets The Call

In today’s passage, we read the story of the second group of disciples that Jesus calls to follow him.  The first group according to John’s account, consisted of Andrew who immediately found his brother Peter saying, “We have found the Messiah.”  

The next day, Jesus finds Phillip, who like Andrew and Peter is also from the fishing village of Bethsaida.  Phillip in turn runs to find Nathanael.  The exchange goes like this:

Phillip to Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nathanael (with a scowl on his face): “Nazareth! Can any good thing come from there?”

Phillip: “Come and see.”

Nathanael, who is called Bartholomew by the other gospel writers, follows Phillip reluctantly.  When they approach Jesus, Jesus himself calls out so that all around can hear:

“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing to hide.”  

To Nathanael, this sounds like a sales pitch.  Like someone is trying to butter him up.  Like a very insincere greeting.  It must have because Nathanael doesn’t say, “Thank you.”  Or “Please, don’t go on so. I’m just a fisherman.” Or anything.  Instead he asks Jesus a question that is loaded with skepticism:

“How do you know me?”  Now let me translate this from the original Greek for those of you who might not get the exact meaning.  Nathanael is really saying, “You don’t know anything about me, why are you flattering me?”

For Nathanael it was kind of like meeting someone at a party whom you have never seen, who starts telling you about your house, and your kids, and your job, and what the neighbors are saying about you.  How do you know me?  Where did you get all that?

I am sure Nathanael expected Jesus to be caught off guard.  After all, who doesn’t like a compliment?  And, most people are polite, even if the person praising them is overdoing it a bit.

Not Nathanael.  He puts Jesus on the spot.  But he’s not prepared for Jesus’ answer.  Rather than stumbling around, Jesus says, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”  

(“Oh.  Oh, wow!”)  Because about that time, Nathanael is remembering that he was stretched out under the shade of a gigantic fig tree, taking a nap when Phillip interrupted him.

Nathanael’s brain is now working overtime.  Quickly he calculates all the people he remembers passing him as he rested under the fig tree:  

(“Well, there was an old woman with a water jar.  A noisy kid with a stick running and hitting rocks on the path.  An old man shuffling back to his home.  That was it!  No one else could have seen me.  How in the world does this Yeshua guy know I was under the fig tree?  My own family didn’t know where I was.  Wait.  No.  Yes.  NO!  YES!  The Holy One, blessed be his name, told him.  Wait.  That makes Jesus…what?….the Messiah!”)  

And all of a sudden without thinking further, Nathanael’s skepticism falls from him like a cast off coat, and he blurts out, “Rabbi….you…you are the Son of God, you…you are the King of Israel!”  

Now the tables are turned.  Jesus is clearly in charge of this conversation now.  He speaks to Nathanael, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things that that.”  

Then, after a pause, Jesus adds, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

One Story Leads To Another

End of story.  Except what in the world does it mean?  What could Nathanael see that would be more amazing than Jesus telling him where he had been only a few hours before?  And how had Jesus done that?  It had to be God, so at least Nathanael had settled that question.  

But now Jesus is saying, “You think that was amazing? You haven’t seen anything yet.”  And then Jesus says three very interesting things.  

Jesus could have stopped at any one of these sentences —

  • “You’re going to see heaven opened.”  That would be amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “And angels ascending and descending.” Remember angels?  Every time they appear people are afraid and fall down.  That’s amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “On the Son of Man.”  Jesus here means himself, but how can angels ascend and descend on him?  

Here’s where Nathanael has us beat.  Remember when Jesus said of Nathanael, “Here’s a true Israelite in whom there is nothing to hide?”  

I don’t think Jesus ever calls anybody else an “Israelite.”  There was no Israel anymore.  That was Old Testament.  The northern tribes, gone since 721 BC.   Now they all lived in Judea.  Or Galilee. Or Samaria.  But, not in Israel.  

But, remember where the name “Israel” came from?  God gave it to Jacob after Jacob wrestled with God one night.  Okay, stay with me now because the payoff is coming.

Jacob, remember, was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.  That’s how God always identified himself.  “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

But Jacob, before he wrestled with God, had a dream one night.  He had cheated his brother, Esau, out of his birthright, and had fled from his homeland to escape Esau’s anger.  Actually, Esau wanted to kill him.  

One night as Jacob is on the run, he stops to make camp.  He takes a stone and using it for a pillow, falls asleep. Which if you used a rock for a pillow might make you have strange dreams, but the dream Jacob had was a doozy.

He dreamed that he saw a stairway, a ladder, with its feet planted on the earth and the top reaching into heaven.  The angels of God were ascending and descending on it in his dream.  Then, God appears standing at the top of the ladder or staircase saying, “I am the God of Abraham and of Isaac.”  But not of Jacob.  

Then God makes the same promise to Jacob that God made to Abraham and Isaac.  “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and I’m going to give you the land on which you are lying.”  Now, at that point, God becomes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because God has now made the same covenant with Jacob that he made with Abraham and Isaac.  

Jacob wisely, and fearfully, recognizes that God is in that place.  He takes the rock that was his pillow and uses it to make an altar.  He pronounces the name of the place, Bethel, which means “house of God.”  And, he worships God there.  

Jacob is so overcome he remarks, “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  He had seen heaven opened.  

The New Jacob’s Ladder

When we were in the youth department at our church, we sang,

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross.”  

And that’s it.  The new Jacob’s ladder, the new connection between heaven and earth is Jesus.  The angels will ascend or descend based on the word of Jesus.  The will of God will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven” because of the work of Jesus.  The connection between heaven and earth that was severed with man’s disobedience has been restored in Jesus.

No longer is heaven off-limits, or earth a struggling chaotic mass.  Now heaven and earth are again joined.  And they are joined by Jesus.  

The cross that is planted so firmly on Calvary’s hill reaches into the heavens.  God meets his people on that ladder which only Jesus can climb.  God meets his people in person.  Renewing the covenant, embracing the fallen, choosing the scoundrels, the outcasts, the tricksters, all of whom have no chance at seeing into the gates of heaven without someone to bridge the gap.  

The Ladder At Work Today

So, how does this new Jacob’s ladder, a.k.a. Jesus, work today?  Most of us haven’t seen any angels coming and going, or had any dreams of stairways to heaven.  

In his wonderful book, Dissident Discipleship, Dr. David Augsburger tells this story:

David Shank, a pastor in Belgium, followed a translator into a room filled with Greek, Spanish, and Serbian miners.  At a minute’s notice, he was to tell the Christian story. 

“Fellows, would you agree to play a game with me?” he asked. “Let me try to tell you about yourselves.  If I am wrong, you stop me.  But as long as I tell the truth, you let me go on.  Agreed?”  They nodded in skeptical consent.

“You’ve never had a real chance to get ahead in life until now, so every day you risk your lives to go down into these dirty Belgian mines to give your children a better chance, right?”

“Yes, that’s right, go on.”

“So you work like a slave, day after day, so your kids won’t have to do the same.  That’s your ideal. You get paid on Saturday. You stop at the cafe for a drink or two, a few hands of cards and a couple bets, and when you get home your wife looks at what’s left of your pay and says, ‘Not enough for the week.'”

“Yeah, go on.”

“When she criticizes you, what’s even worse, you know she’s right, you get mad at her; and you lose your head and hit her?”

“Right, but how did you know?”

“Then you feel ashamed, and you ask yourself, ‘Why did I do that?”


“Then you can’t sleep and you lie there thinking ‘My kids are no better off than before, I’ve failed them,’ And you get mad at yourself, at the filthy job, then at your wife, your kids, the whole world.  After you fume for awhile you say, ‘Next week will be different.’ So you go back to the dirty mine.”

“Yes, that’s about right.”

“And when you’re a mile or two under the earth, you start to wonder, ‘What about all the gases down here? What if there’s an explosion? What about a cave-in? What then? What about the wife and kids? What about me?’ But there’s no one to talk to about this.  You’re alone and you feel rotten.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Do you know how I know all this?”

“No, that’s what we want to know.  You’re no miner. How did you get to know about us?”

“I got it out of this book.”

“What book?”

“It’s called the New Testament.  It tells about our hopes and God’s hopes for us.  Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”

“Yes, tell us the rest.”

“It says that at the very point  where we fail, where we betray our ideals and we are guilty and afraid, God wants to help.  And if we accept that help, there’s hope for our children.”  (Dissident Discipleship, p171-173.)

To see hopeless lives connected to the throne room of heaven by Jesus himself is a far greater thing to see than where some skeptic is taking a nap.

We follow Jesus sometimes because we’re amazed at the mystery of God.  We should follow him because we are amazed at the miracle of God’s love. moving to a new home


As of next week, will have a new home right here in Virginia.  Founder of NCR, Scott Linklater, is turning the reins over to me next week. is a “Drudge-like” format reporting on all things church.  

Presently, the is frozen in place, but check back next week for new content.  Scott is trusting his baby to me, and I promise his loyal readers I’ll keep up the quality, variety, and helpfulness of his site.  

Of course, I’ll still be here, too.  And at  And at   Let me know what you think about and how we can work together to find and load new content there each week. Thanks for your help.

Some housekeeping notes

  • The Friday Freebies will now become a monthly giveaway due to underwhelming response.  I’ll try it again in February and see what happens. 
  • New look for Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.  This theme displays well on mobile phones, plus it looks cleaner and less cluttered.  Hope you like it. 
  • Check out the feeds on the right-hand column: my Twitter, SmallChurchPROF, Outreach2Go, and Goodthoughts.  Put them in your feed readers and get a steady stream of other good stuff relating to church. 
  • Thanks for sticking around in 2009!

Know when to quit

The Community Center at ChathamAt the end of this month, I will step down from the board of the non-profit I started four years ago.  It’s time for me to quit.  It’s time for me to turn over this organization and the community center we built to others whose gifts in fundraising, management, and programming exceed mine.  

We started Chatham Cares, Inc.  in 2005 in order to develop plans and funding for a community center in our county seat town.  In the past four years we started a Boys and Girls Club in Chatham; designed a 16,000-square-foot building; rallied public support; received a $3-million grant to construct and furnish it; and, opened the building to rave reviews in June, 2008.  I enjoyed every minute of it!

But, the building is built, the programs are running smoothly under the capable leadership of Director Lori Slayton, and it’s time for me to move on to other projects.  

Here are some questions I asked myself as I was making the decision to step down:

  1.  Have we finished this phase?  I was interested in making sure the building design, construction, and furnishings were functional, beautiful, and flexible.  We accomplished that, but now the project is beginning another phase of sustaining programs and recruiting supporters.
  2. Am I the best person for the next phase, or will different gifts be needed? Fundraising is a big thing for us now, and I’m not a good person to do that.  My position as pastor in a small town with a limited number of potential donors conflicts with my own church needs.  Plus, programming, board management, and day-to-day details are not my strong suit.  I enjoyed being the public face of this effort, but I’m not a good detail guy.
  3. Do I enjoy what I’m doing now?  I loved the design and building phase.  I don’t enjoy the management phase.  I don’t like negotiating contracts, dealing with vendors, and solving recurring problems.  Some folks do, I don’t.
  4. Will my presence help or hinder the future of this project?  Tough one to answer because, of course, we all think that we’re the best person to carry on the project we started.  But honestly, not always.  Different needs call for different gifts.  The future of this project is about more than any one individual.  My honest answer was that someone else was needed to take the center to the next level.

From a church standpoint, this will give me more time to work with our growing Sunday School class, visit our own members, and reconnect with other pastors in the area.  Don’t get me wrong — this was an emotional decision for me.  I invested four years of my life and energy in a project that I believed in.  But this will be a good step for Chatham Cares.  

Two years ago I wrote a post titled, Don’t Quit! about leaving pastoral ministry.  I’ve learned it’s also important to know when to quit.  Now is the time.  

Have any of you faced similar decisions?  How did you make your decision to quit or stay?  I’d be interested to hear from you.

Appearing for one night only

atlanta_tabernacle_lgThe last time I attended the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia was about 1982.  Dr. John Bisagno was preaching a revival as the Tabernacle’s new pastor tried in vain to resurrect the dying congregation. Of the 2,000-plus seats in the immense sanctuary with two levels of balconies,  I think about 200 were filled that night.  

The congregation disbanded and the magnificent building lay dormant until the Atlanta Olympics when the House of Blues opened a venue there.  Today The Tabernacle is a gigantic rock-n-roll club with full bar, dancing in the aisles, and crowds of people.  But the Tabernacle’s life as a church isn’t over yet.

In February, Passion City Church will hold its first public event there.  It will be interesting to see how this works out, but I’m personally pleased that God will appear, even if for one night only, back at The Tabernacle.

Getting grants for community programs

Tomorrow we will be awarded a grant of $11,500 for equipment and software to use in art camps we’re planning for this summer.  

This grant comes about 6-months after we submitted a grant request summary.  The summary piqued their interest and we were asked by the local foundation to present a full grant proposal.  In that proposal we asked for $25,000 — they gave us $11,500.  Not bad in this economy.  Here are the lessons I’ve learned in the five grants we’ve applied for:

  1. Most granting agencies award to non-profits, not churches.  We incorporated our community center group as Chatham Cares, Inc, a 501-c-3 not-for-profit corporation recognized by the IRS.  
  2. Granting agencies have their own criteria.  The Virginia Commission for the Arts awarded us a total of $7,000 to date for an open mic program from teens.  The grant we receive tomorrow is for art instruction for kids.  The grant for the community center was for capital projects.  Know the criteria and mission of the granting agency and follow their guidelines.
  3. Grants usually go to expand existing programs.  Few foundations want to take a chance on an untried idea.  Many will partially fund (as in our case) an on-going program, or the expansion of a program, but you’ve got to get started first.
  4. Grants require documentation.  Both the grant application process and the grant reporting requirement call for documented support of the program for which the grant is requested.  Photographs, advertising copies, attendance reports, and other evidence to back up your application or indicate how you spent the money will be necessary.
  5. Local groups get local grants.  Most large government grants (faith-based initiatives) and national foundations give money to proven organizations.  If your local group needs funds, find a local grantor to approach.  Chances are you’ll have more success. 

Grants aren’t for everyone or every program.  And, grant writing is as much art as science.  The good news is that foundations have money they have to give away, and a well-crafted grant proposal may bring in a significant amount of money.