Category: Congregation

God’s Timing Is Important Even For Programs

God’s timing is important.  It’s so important that the writers of the New Testament distinguished between chronological time, chronos;  and, the right time, kairos.  Of course, there is much more to it than that, but you get the point.  The biblical writers knew the difference between the time of day, and the opportune time.

At our small church we’re experiencing a Kairos Moment.  Not a Kodak moment, but an it’s-the-right-time moment.  For over 3 years we’ve been trying to get something going for children’s ministry.  We tried several approaches, special events, and none of it worked.  Attendance was poor, enthusiasm was in short supply, and it just didn’t happen.

But this month we’ve seen a sudden resurgence in our children’s ministry.  Last fall we created a Family Ministry Team composed of young adults who were all new members of our church.  Some have children, some don’t, but all of them are interested in enhancing our outreach and ministry to families.

Their recommendations were presented to, and adopted by our church this summer.  This month the first of those recommendations began to take shape.  They recommended a change in our Sunday School curriculum, and the addition of a younger children’s teaching time during the worship service.  And on Wednesday nights, we now have children’s missions groups for all ages from preschool through elementary school.

Our Sunday School class, which we started 3 years ago for younger adults has also grown.  Sunday we had a new family with three children attend both Sunday School and worship.  At our annual church picnic yesterday, most of these newer members and their kids were present.  They enjoyed fishing, playing with each other, riding the 4-wheelers around the farm, and just being outdoors on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

On the way back to the church on the church bus, a couple of us commented that “this is God’s timing” because all of our efforts to get children’s ministry cranking had failed previously.  Our plan is to “grow up” our own teen group by starting with the children we have who in a few years will themselves be teenagers.  It’s a long-term plan, but one that I can see taking shape now.

My point in all of this is that God’s timing is important.  Too often we see God’s timing only in big events.  But even a program like Sunday School and children’s church, or children’s mission groups, is in the Father’s hands, too.  At the right time, the right people will come forward, the children will appear, and God’s providence will prove infallible again.

If you’re struggling to get a program going, don’t despair.  Keep praying, keep hoping, keep dreaming of the day that God will raise up the right leaders, and things will begin to take shape.  Have you had that experience?  If so, share something in the comments to encourage others.  Thanks.

Lead, Care, Proclaim

Years ago, LifeWay’s focus on pastoral ministry was contained in three words — lead, care, proclaim.  Lead included church administration with its committee meetings, planning sessions, and member training.  Care involved pastoral care of the congregation, and the pastor’s training of and relationship with caregivers such as deacons.  Proclaim covered the pastor’s preaching and teaching ministry both at Sunday morning worship, and in smaller group settings such as Wednesday Bible study.

To support these tasks, LifeWay (then called The Baptist Sunday School Board) produced periodicals like Church Administration and Proclaim magazine.  I don’t recall a pastoral care magazine, but maybe there was one. My point is these three words summed up the pastor’s work then.  I still find myself involved in these same areas — leading, caring, and proclaiming.

My week seems to be spent in sermon preparation, pastoral care ministry, and administrative matters.  I try to keep a balance of spending an equal amount of time on each.  My office hours are 9 AM to 12 noon Monday through Thursday (I take Fridays off).  I usually spend my office time on the phone, chatting with folks who drop by the office, or working on administrative projects.  That’s my leading time, although leadership happens all the time and in casual settings, too.

Most of my care ministry takes place in the afternoons when I visit the hospitals, nursing and rehab centers, and our members at home.  I can make most of my pastoral care visits in the afternoons, but in other churches I served those took at least two evenings a week.  Evening visits now are usually with prospective members, most of whom have daytime jobs.

In the proclaim area, I do most of my sermon preparation and study at home, but that wasn’t the case when our kids were small.  Changing life circumstances meaning changing our work, study, and leisure routines as well.

I think LifeWay captured the small church pastor’s ministry well in those three words — lead, care, proclaim.  That’s still what I’m about, and I imagine you are, too.  What does your ministry routine involve and how do you allocate your time?

Leading Your Church To Change

“How can I get them to change?”  As a small church pastor, I think I’ve asked myself that question at least once a day in every church I have pastored.  Wanting the churches we pastor to change is part of our DNA.  We see opportunities for improvement, expansion, growth, outreach, and progress, and we think everyone should see things the same way we do.

Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize everyone doesn’t see things the way we do, and that our members like things just like they are.  How does a pastor, whose heart beats to the sound of change, lead his congregation to make the changes necessary for the future of that church?

Here are five keys to leading change in the small church that I’ve learned, mostly the hard way:

1.  Listen to the stories of the past. Our church is 153 years old.  Three years ago we celebrated our 150th anniversary in a 7-month long sesquicentennial emphasis.  During that time I got to hear the stories of our past.  Leaders, traditions, memories, and accomplishments were highlighted each month.  I developed a new appreciation for the 150 years our church had existed before I arrived on the scene.  Your church has a history B.Y. — before you.  Listen to and celebrate the stories of the past with your people — that will go a long way toward leading them to change in the future.

2.  Link the past to the future. The theme for our 150th anniversary was “Praise for the Past, Faith for the Future.” The steering committee came up with that theme, and I thought it was great.  They sensed that the past was important, not just because it was history, but because it was a link to our future.  Mark Lau Branson of Fuller Seminary has written a helpful book, Memories, Hopes and Conversations, about how his church built on the traditions of their past to find a way forward for the future.

3.  Learn what type of church you have. By church type, I don’t mean “Baptist” or “cantankerous.”  Israel Galindo’s book, The Hidden Lives of Congregations offers several clues to learning about church types.  After reading Galindo’s book, I learned where our church was in the typical life cycle of churches, and I understood the particular challenges we faced more clearly.  There are other church characteristics that Galindo covers that can be helpful in learning how to lead you particular type and style of church.

4.  Love your people. This is advice everybody gives, but too few pastors follow.  Loving people means spending time with them, getting to know their stories, learning what’s important to them, and genuinely caring about them.  The old saying, “People don’t care what you know until they know you care” is still true.  If you care, and your members know it, they’ll respond to your leadership enthusiastically.

5. Lead with patience. Change takes time in a small church.  Actually, I think changing small churches is more difficult than changing large churches.  Traditions and memories are the stuff of small churches, and change threatens both.   I wrote a chapter in the LifeWay book, Deacons As Leaders, that tells the story of how one church I pastored changed our deacon structure to a more positive, servant ministry.  Pastors that lead with gentle patience can look back years later to see progress that is steady and sustainable.

Change comes in fits and starts in small congregations.  But it can come.  In churches I’ve pastored, we built buildings, bought property, revised our by-laws, hired staff, altered schedules, moved classes, created new programs, and started new groups.  Your leadership as pastor is the key to transformative change in your church.  Take the time to listen, link, learn, love, and lead, and you’ll reap the rewards of positive changes in your church.

How I Spent My Summer

Where did summer go?  I’m sure yours has been busy, too; but, I can’t believe how summer has flown by.  School starts tomorrow here in our community, and we resume our regular Wednesday night schedule at the church starting this Wednesday.

June was taken up with Vacation Bible School — getting ready and then the week of VBS itself.  In July, I finished my last course paper for my DMin at Fuller on the subject of forgiveness.  Lots of reading and time in this last paper, but I hope to do my final project on forgiveness, so this was kind of an abbreviated trial run.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a Sunday School workers’ banquet at a neighboring church in Hurt, VA, and then preached a three-day revival last week at Mulberry Grove Baptist Church in Buckingham, VA.  In both places, they were some of the nicest folks I’ve met.  The pastor at Mulberry Grove is finishing his PhD from Edinburgh in early Christianity, so we had some interesting conversations.  Trey and Lou Ann are great folks that are enjoying serving a small church in a small community in rural Virginia.  While I was there, the local Baptist association of churches invited me to do a Tuesday morning seminar for pastors and lay leaders.  The association has 18 churches, all of them small, and 8 churches were represented among the 22 people in attendance.  We had a great morning sharing together about small church ministry, and I got some very good ideas from some excited pastors and church leaders.

So, that’s my summer so far.  Of course, like any time of the year, there are funerals, hospital visits, and church stuff that continues.  The garden shows the neglect of a too-busy summer schedule this year, but maybe next year I’ll have more time for the tomatoes.  I hope your summer was a good one, and I’ll be back here a little more often as fall moves toward winter.

A Must-read Conversation With Rick Warren

You need to read The Future of Evangelicalism:  A Conversation With Rick Warren over at The Pew Forum.  It’s long, and covers a lot of territory, but in it Rick talks about how megachurches do the small church thing (my words, not his).  Here’s a quick excerpt:

WARREN: For example, our church, while we have the big services on Sunday, we meet in homes during the week in small groups of six to eight people. We have over 4,500 small groups. They meet in every city in Southern California.

CROMARTIE: How many again?

WARREN: Four-thousand-five-hundred. They meet in every city in Southern California from Santa Monica to Carlsbad. It’s a hundred miles distance in our small groups. So on Sunday morning they’re coming to Saddleback or they’re going to Saddleback San Clemente or Saddleback Irvine or Saddleback Corona, but during the week they’re in small groups.

And it is in that small group – when you get sick, you’re visited in the hospital. When you’re out of work, the people help you out. There is a real tight-knit community. There is a longing for belonging in our community, and large churches have figured out it’s not the crowd that attracts; it’s the stuff under the surface that attracts.”

Bingo!  I love that line….“it’s not the crowd that attracts; its the stuff under the surface that attracts.” Of course, Rick points out that the largest churches in the world are not in the US, but in Asia, Africa, and South America.  Read the entire interview.  It’s good stuff about issues of interest to us all, no matter what size church you serve.

Running Out of Communion Cups is Not All Bad

Today we ran out of communion cups.  I don’t mean we didn’t have any in the cupboard. Rather, we ran out while serving communion to a larger-than-expected Fourth of July congregation.  And it was all my fault.

You see, almost everybody I had talked to the week before told me something like —

“Sorry we won’t see you Sunday because we’ll be at the __________________ with our family.”

You may fill in the appropriate destination with words like beach, cabin, lake, mountains, or in-laws.  So, naturally I expected a rather slim crowd for Sunday worship.  When the ladies who prepare communion asked me how many to prepare for, I said something like:

“No more than 80 tops, and we’ll be lucky to have 50.”

This is where the saying, “O ye of little faith” is appropriate.  As it turned out, we had 102 in worship and actually ran out of the little plastic cups we serve communion grape juice in.  We ran out of them while serving the 102 people waiting reverently for their cup.  I am glad to say that most of the congregation was served due to two factors:

  1. The ladies ignored my seriously pessimistic estimate, and actually had the four trays filled with about 23 or so each, for a total of about 92+ cups.
  2. The deacons went without.  I serve them last anyway, so they just missed the cup of communion on this Sunday.  Plus, I swiped my wife’s cup so I could lead the litany for the cup.

Our exceptional worship number was the result of the attendance of 50 youth from a local summer camp program. Their energy and enthusiasm more than made up for my shortsightedness.  On this Fourth I had a first — my first time to run out of communion cups during communion, but it won’t happen again.  Lesson learned: plan big!

Favorite hymns and lemonade


This was the scene at our church for Favorite Hymn Sunday. We’re meeting in our fellowship hall because there is some sort of electrical problem in our sanctuary. But, we served lemonade and cookies between Sunday School and worship, so everybody was happy. Or maybe they were happy because I didn’t preach this morning. Who knows, but take a look at our small church in action on this hot Sunday morning.

Small groups are the building blocks of small churches

Our church is typical of many established, small town churches.  Three years ago, our congregation was made up mostly of older adults.  Of course, older adults are the backbone of many congregations.  They provide a higher-than-average amount of financial support, they attend with above-average faithfulness, and they love their church.

Our senior adults are wonderful, and they realized that for our church’s future we needed to reach out to younger adults and young families.  But the mass mailings we had tried did not produce new visitors.  To add to our difficulty, the region in which we live has been in an economic downturn for several years.  Few jobs exist for younger adults, and few young families were moving to our area.

But three years ago we started a younger adult Sunday School class with about 5 younger adults.  I’m using the term “younger” because age is a relative thing.  We needed to reach folks in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, but we weren’t going to do that all at once.  We believed that if we started lowering the age-range, we would eventually reach young families with young children.

Yesterday at our church-wide covered-dish lunch, 12 children were running around the fellowship hall while the adults finished eating and talking.  Six of the 12 were preschoolers; 5 are elementary schoolers; and, 1 is a middle schooler. These are our class members’ children.  As the sound of giggles and laughter bounced around the room, all of us were glad to see children playing around us, again.

Our class also had a record attendance yesterday with 19 present. A couple of our class members were out, so the number could have been higher.  These younger adults have already begun taking leadership positions.  One was elected a deacon last year, another takes a turn once a month leading our children’s time during worship, and 6 of the class members are leading our new Family Ministry Team.

Three years ago we started with five.  Now there are over 20.  Our class with their children now account for 20-30% of our attendance each week.

Starting a new class or small group isn’t glamorous, and it’s not a new idea.  But, starting a new class is a strategy that works.  I remember years ago Lyle Schaller, author and church consultant, saying “new people need new groups.”  If you want to attract new people to your church, start a new class, be patient, practice hospitality, and watch as the group grows and matures.  Small groups are still the building blocks of small churches.

Beware The Post-Easter Letdown Syndrome

Okay, so your church did it all.  You had a Maundy Thursday service, a Good Friday service, an Easter egg hunt on Saturday, an early Easter sunrise service, and one or more Easter morning worship services.  And it was all great!  Except today is Monday, and you’re not feeling so good.

Welcome to the post-Easter letdown syndrome.  There are several things you can do to get past this sag in spirit:

  1. Stop eating your kids’ Easter candy. I know it makes you feel better, but you don’t need the calories or the sugar, which creates another letdown.
  2. Get off the bunny trail, and get some rest. This one is serious advice.  Think of the rhythm of rising energy leading up to big seasons and Sundays like Easter. Plan for some down-time afterward.  Spend some extra time with your family.  Cut the grass.  In other words, take a break.
  3. Make notes for next year. Okay, get some rest first, but somewhere along the way, make notes of the things that went well, and the things that didn’t.  File them away for next year, and maybe it will save you some work about 11 months from now.

Okay, that’s it.  Oh, and watch Duke and Butler face off tonight.  I’m going to myself, right after our monthly Deacons’ meeting.  Some things you can’t get out of!

When Death Comes To Our Community

This is the sermon I am going to preach on Sunday, February 21, 2010.  It comes on the occasion of the death of one of our members tonight, Saturday, February 20.

When Pope John XXIII lay dying, the Pope’s physician is reported to have said, “Holy Father, you have asked me many times to tell you when the end was near so you could prepare.”  The Pope replied, “Yes.  Don’t feel badly, Doctor.  I understand. I am ready.”

With that the Pope’s secretary, Loris Capovilla collapsed at the Pope’s bedside weeping.

“Courage, my son.  I am a bishop, and I must die as a bishop, with simplicity but with majesty, and you must help me.  Go get the people together.”

His reply was, “Santo Padre, they are waiting.” — Accompany Them With Singing, Introduction.

Last night one of our own left us.  Earl Hedrick went home to be with God.  I had planned to preach today on angels as God’s ushers, bringing us at death and at the end of time into the presence of God.  And while that might be a subject of great interest to us at another time, I felt today I needed to speak to you as your pastor about death, and what happens when death comes to our community.

This is not Earl’s funeral or eulogy, but because his death came so close upon our gathering here today, and came as such a shock to each of us, I want to take a few minutes today to talk about death and how we as followers of Christ deal with the grief and loss that accompanies death.

Dying Is Part of Our Life’s Journey

We all know we are going to die someday, but the will to live that beats in our chest does all it can to push death away.  We have sought to remove death from our lives, our homes, even our churches so much that when death does come in unexpected and surprising ways, we are struck with its finality and force.

There was a time when death was seen as the shadow companion of life.  Walk through any old cemetery where the grave stones display dates that reach back a hundred or more years.  What strikes me each time I visit an old cemetery is the number of small

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