Category: Ministry (page 2 of 6)

A People of Peace

“Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. 7 I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” Psalm 120:6-7 NIV

This psalm is a song of ascent, sung or spoken by weary pilgrims making their way to the holy places of Jerusalem. They were going to a place of worship, a holy sanctuary resplendent with peace. They were not thinking of war, in fact they were weary of bloodshed and just wanted to be with people who worshipped the Prince of Peace. To prefer peace is a surprisingly rare trait among people, then and now.

I noticed not long ago, as I entered a room for a prayer meeting, that New Life has become a place of peace. Couples, students and children were milling about, engaged in casual dialogue and unhurried conversations. Not everyone was smiling and there were no plastic grins, but there was an air of authenticity, a relaxed spirit of sincere friendship.

This did not happen without conflict or scars, but we made choices along the way to choose relationships over ideological differences. I realize there will be skirmishes among people, because where two or more are gathered, there will be, at some point, fusses. Even in the middle of conflict,, though, we can choose to think the best about one another and to dismiss gossip for what it is. We will not always get it right, but when we know we have offended, we will be quick to repent. It is what a people of peace do, it is who we are.

I make no assumptions that peace will always define us because that only happens when the wars of our inner soul are settled and won. Peace inside me means I can be at peace with others on the outside. This means that every day, we have to take an honest, sometimes painful stare into our own souls.  I do know, though, that peace is definitely worth that daily fight.

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Which Master are We Serving?

“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” Proverbs 22:7 (NIV)

Debt is the new master of our culture. It rules over many of our homes, it certainly dominates our federal and state governments, but sadly it is now the master of many of our churches. Proverbs warned us about this and told us plainly that when debt is the master, the poor are enslaved and we become servants to a master that is not always kind.

New Life Church has $23 million of debt after building our current meeting space and purchasing some other properties. When the decision was made to borrow the money eight years ago, the church was growing really fast and giving was on the increase. The leaders felt the debt was manageable and could be paid off easily in a few years. It was a solid decision at the time.

Since then, our church has suffered through a scandal, a shooting and a shrinking local economy. Suddenly what was once manageable became the master that has kept us from some vital ministry opportunities in our city and world. When we wanted to serve the poor, we instead, had to send in mortgage payments to a credit union.

This past Sunday, our church took a historic first step to move the mountain of debt, and we will, with God’s wisdom and help. It may take days, months or even years, but we are determined to be debt free, untangled from the world system of debt and interest payments and better yoked with real kingdom purposes.

Proverbs 22:7 confronts what most of us have chosen to believe — that immense debt has no consequences, but it does. Imagine what our churches could do if we focused as much on solving the housing shortage that keeps the working poor in the shadows, living in cars with their children, as we did dreaming up the next building project to expand our campuses?

I am not against big buildings because large, growing families need space to meet and to do ministry. I just want balance. I want us to live simple lives, avoiding extravagance, especially when it keeps us from the real ministry of Jesus in our cities. If Jesus saw a working single mom living in a car with her children, he would buy apartment complexes and then maybe, a place for them to worship, later.

What has the debt at our churches kept us from doing in our cities? That’s the big question we’re answering right now at New Life. It has been revelatory for me to talk with our people about this. The light has come on for all of us and we’re beginning to imagine and dream about ministry that can really change people’s lives.

Let’s make sure we are serving the right master, not a world system that gives us easy money and then makes us servants who then have to ask permission to do the things we have already been told to do by our true Master.

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Should Everyone Be Treated the Same?

We live in a society that puts a high value on justice and everyone being equal. That’s fine for personal rights and liberties, but I do not think everyone should be treated the same on a church staff. We are all unique people with different callings, different skills and different functions. All of us are valuable parts of the body, but all of us are not kneecaps, therefore we cannot be treated the same and still live up to our potential.

On our team here at New Life Church, we have men and women who fill different functions. Some are adminisrators who need to be in the office Monday thru Friday 9am to 5pm in order to fulfill their very important roles. This is a matter of function, not status. Because I allow others to arrive at different times and on different days is not because they are superior or more important, it is a matter of function.

I believe one of the reasons many churches have a hard time attracting highly creative people is that we force right brain people to live in a left brain world. Most churches are run by studious left brain people who have a hard time living alongside people who do their best work late at night or alone in a coffee shop.

All of us should have the same character convictions and the same steadfast love for Jesus and his church. Everyone should have clear expectations, be evaluated regularly and  be expected to fulfill their assignments.  These are non-negotiable. What is negotiable are schedules and primary responsibilities. What seems unfair to people with a strong sense of justice may actually be a source of life to another. All of us want to be productive and fruitful for God, but not all of us can do it the same way.

My goal as pastor is to find out what God is doing in each person on the team, encourage them greatly, provide safe boundaries so they can flourish, encourage experimentation, learn from our failures and celebrate our wins. Some of those wins will happen in the predictable left brain world and some will happen in the seemingly chaotic world of the right brainer. Either way, we win.

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Parenting and Parachuting

Being a parent is like jumping out of an airplane. You only get one chance to get it right. The thrill of beginning the journey is replaced by a hope that everything lands on target. Pam and I today are out of the plane, the rip cord has been pulled and we are drifting slowly down to the target zone. We are not experts, but we are experienced.

Not long ago, I was asked to consider writing a parenting book. I laughed. They were serious. I laughed again. I told them, no one should write a book on parenting until all their kids were out of the house and successfully launched into adulthood. In fact, the toughest part of parenting may be the time your kids leave the house until they are married or launched. We still have that part of the journey ahead of us.

Our kiddos are 13 and 11, so I have just started enjoying the world of teenager. Notice, I did not say I “dread” the teenage years. I believe we mostly get what we speak and expect, so I am speaking and expecting that Abram and Callie will be awesome teenagers.

Looking back on the toddler and elementary years, Pam and I made a lot of mistakes, but got a few things right. Here are a few insights that I hope are helpful.

1. Be predictable when they are young. Most bad behaviors with little ones happen at 2pm in a Wal-Mart or at 9pm in a restaurant. That’s because they should be napping and sleeping at those times, not in aisle 3 or at a Red Robin.

2. Get control of bad manners as soon as they recognize the Queen’s English. It is a lot easier to wrestle their rebellion to the ground when they are in onesy’s  than when they are wanting to borrow your car. We demand Abram and Callie say “yes m’am” and “no m’am”, “please” and “thank you” with no exceptions. Old school, maybe, but I don’t like brats, especially in my house.

3. Both our kids are taught to respond immediately to us when we call their name. When they are older, I suspect they will respond as quickly when God whispers to them.

4. Our kids are required to greet us when we come home. We also greet them when they come home. If they ignore my entrance, whatever TV show or game that is distracting them, gets turned off.

5. We laugh a lot at our house. Make sure you enter their world, learn their jokes, and giggle with them, even if it’s over really silly stuff.

6. Learn their love language. Read Gary Chapman’s book, “The Five Love Languages” to learn how your child primarily gives and receives love. It will change your relationship for the better, I promise.

7. Model a passionate lifestyle of following Jesus.  Our kids are paying a lot more attention to what we do and say than we think. Passionate parents most often produce passionate children. Breaking News – You don’t have to have amazing family devotions every single night, either. Take a deep breath. Live it and they will catch it.

8. Go on dates with your daughters and adventures with your sons. One on one time is super important. They must know that they are individuals with immense importance to you.

9. Give them responsibilities that have rewards for being obedient and consequences for missing the mark. I have these same responsibilities as an adult. It’s called a job.

10. Slow down the pace and savor their innocence. I know your kid is probably going to write the next great concerto, but that insane schedule you have them on every week is not fun for you or them. Let them be kids with a lot of space to breathe and play. Let them have a sabbath, too. The 10 commandments are for everyone.

What have you learned along the way?

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Reflections from a weekend in the mountains

I spent this past weekend at a spectacular mountain retreat center near Winter Park, Colorado with over 200 men who help me lead and pastor our church. We ate together, prayed together, worshipped together and discussed several big ideas. Oh yeah, we also watched LSU beat Florida like a 2-year old at Wal-Mart. But, I digress.

Friday night was a detox night for all of us. We spent a couple of hours with just song and Spirit guiding us. It was really refreshing to unwind, completely untangled from any agenda, service plans, or time restraints.

Saturday morning, we unpacked a definition of pastor. We used Eugene Peterson’s beautiful explanation: “To pay attention and call attention to what God is doing in people and between people.” We talked about “paying attention” and being alert as leaders of our homes and leaders within the fellowship.

Saturday night, we explored the steps all of us take toward sonship with the Prodigal Son story from Luke 15 as our backdrop. My five steps to sonship are:

1. I had no idea.

2. God knows me.

3. I belong to Him.

4. I have nothing to prove.

5. I will treat others the way He treats me.

Sunday morning, was really special as we gathered around the sacraments of bread and juice and remembered that we are “more than just conquerors”. We are rulers and governors of the land that has been assigned to us.

I loved the time with old friends and enjoyed meeting some new ones. Good days are ahead for the people of New Life and I am thrilled to be a part.

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Random Monday Thoughts on Preaching Styles

Pastors tend to spend a lot of time obsessing about preaching and teaching, while the rest of society thinks about it, like never. But, it’s Monday and I spoke at New Life yesterday and still wonder if I’m any good, (this is the part that is supposed to motivate you to give me a lot of compliments), but Pam and the kids thought it was great and that’s most important.

Anyway, about a year ago, I underwent a philosophical shift in the way I preach each week. For years, I was a part of a world that primarily taught sermon series on various topics for 4-6 weeks, each series complete with a cool logo, title and sermon bumper (that is the trendy video that plays right before the pastor magically appears on stage).

Strengths of the sermon series approach to preaching:

1. You can tackle topics that are important to the congregation in a timely way. For example, if marriages seem to be struggling, you can talk about marriage, etc.

2. You can go deeper on topics that need extra time to teach, like eschatology (that’s a fancy preacher word that means the end times).


1. You can skip over the hard topics and just talk about the happy ones. In other words, we can talk about the blessings without talking about suffering or sacrifice.

2. You can drain the life out of your creative team trying to be better or more clever than the last series. Cool one word titles can slide down the cheese hill really quick. Our title for the teachings from Luke is … Luke.

My approach for the past year is to walk through books of the Bible story by story, capturing all the big ideas of the book. I have preached through Ephesians, 1 Peter, and for the past 30 weeks, through Luke. I plan to tackle Acts for the first part of 2012.

Strengths of the book approach:

1. You cannot skip over the hard topics. The past two weeks I have taught out of Luke 16, which focuses on two difficult topics for most pastors — hell and money.

2. Hermeneutics (another fancy word for studying the Bible) is embraced more completely.  Who wrote the passage? Who was he talking to? Why did he use specific language? What was going on in the culture at the time?

3. You have to teach on all the topics and ideas that Jesus and the apostle’s taught their churches and followers. It builds a more complete disciple in the long run (just my opinion, but it is my blog).


1. Missed opportunities to preach about topics that are trending socially. For example, on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, we were in Luke 14, which did not contain a ready made memorial message.

2. Missed opportunities to camp out for several weeks on topics that need deeper explanation.

For the record, I think both approaches have merit for the local church and it’s the job of the pastor to listen to what God is saying and obey. Don’t get stuck in a sermon rut. It is possible, and even probable, that some fresh new ideas may be exactly what all of us need.

Monday ramblings are now over. I need to sign off because Sundays come around with alarming regularity and I need to start fretting over the next sermon (leave nice comments below).

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Ministry that is Sustainable for the Long Haul

The burnout rate among pastors and ministry leaders is alarmingly high, but easily preventable. The number of leaders who leave ministry because of discouragement is just as high. Recently, I was talking with a long time pastor friend and we were talking about sustainability in ministry and crossing the finish line as old pastors who still loved the church. We decided there were three crucial elements that must be present for this to happen.

1. Ministry must be for the kingdom

Our motive for everything we do must be for building God’s kingdom and not our personal church empires. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference, but if we keep our hearts honest, we will know when we are promoting ourselves instead of Jesus. Empire building is marked by a competitive drive to build bigger stuff, work harder than everyone else and laying the expectation on your staff to do the same. Nobody can live long term under the stress of comparison and keeping up. Families crumble, marriages turn into mirages and pastors quit out of exhaustion.

2. Ministry must be innovative

Nothing robs me of joy like being stuck in some religious church rut, shackled to traditions that are no longer fruitful. The only things that are sacred in church are the sacraments, the scriptures and our relationships. Everything else should be constantly evaluated. Wisdom says too much change is just as damaging as no change, so I am not advocating chaos. However, I am a fan of honest discussions about processes, events that are no longer relevant, and methods that need honing so people can be helped better. The Holy Spirit is always at work in our lives changing us on the inside so we can better accept the changes He wants to make on the outside.

3. Ministry must be done with friends

I usually hire people I like and I do not apologize. Ministry is too difficult not to work with people that are fun and know how to laugh. They do not have to be Brady clones, and I can even tolerate people who root for teams other than the SEC.  But if they do not know how to laugh and have some fun ever so often, they usually are not a part of my inner circle. For sure, they must have character and competency for the assignment, but an equally essential element for the team is chemistry. Sometimes, I say no to a possible hire because they just don’t fit in with the culture. I do that for their sake and mine. Friends make ministry sustainable for the long haul and that’s what I want for them and me.

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Being a Better Follower

“Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?” Hebrews 13:17 MSG

I wonder if I brought joy to the pastors I served when I was a staff member. I wonder if I am a joy to the Overseers and Elders who lead me now. I sure want to contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. What can all of us do better to make sure we are more responsive to the leaders in our lives?

1. Pray for them always.

2. Find ways to shoulder the burden. What can I do to take stress off them? Is there something they are doing that I can do for them.

3. Show up on time. Their time is important and so is mine. Let’s honor each other’s time.

4. Only complain when we have some solutions to offer.

5. Give them grace when they do not recognize my good work. They will see my success in due time.

6. Give them sincere compliments when they do a good job. They probably feel overlooked sometimes, too.

7. Don’t listen to gossip about them. Spread good news about them. Brag on them and you won’t gossip about them.

8. Bring innovative ideas to the table. Share the burden for creativity and vision.

9. Finish the tasks assigned to you ahead of time. Never need a reminder about a deadline missed.

10. Ask for their counsel before you make a big decision. Your trust in their wisdom means a lot to them.

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Bad Medicine

Being a pastor is a great privilege that carries with the calling a great responsibility to care for people, study the scriptures and to maintain a lifestyle of constant prayer. With these responsibilities come stress, misunderstandings, and the pressure to be a lot of things to a lot of people. When this stress reaches a tipping point, pastors, like everyone else want relief.

Obviously, our only source for lasting peace and sustained strength is God and He is more than enough for a pastor or anyone else. Unfortunately, the world offers cheap and easy escapes, including one that is not on most pastor’s radars. The first four on the list are most often noted as counterfeit ways to dodge the realities that weigh us down.

1. Illegal drugs or legal drugs used foolishly

2. Excessive alcohol

3. Food eaten just to comfort us and not to nourish.

4. Illicit sex

But, there is a fifth form of medication, one that most pastors are addicted to without even knowing. It’s the addiction of adoring crowds. Big crowds, little crowds, and medium size crowds all have the power to medicate our egos and sooth our hidden pain. Why do you think it is so hard many times for a pastor to transition the church to his successor? They certainly want the next guy to take the baton while the light is burning brightly, but they cannot seem to leave the stage and the crowds. They cannot imagine a life without a microphone and pulpit.

We are not performers on a stage hoping for good reviews and our identity is not derived from the laughs prompted by well-timed jokes.  We are pastors tasked with a sacred assignment and our identity is and always should be as servant Christ followers who are using the gifts God gave us. We are just a part of the body, not the focus of the body.

I love the people that sit in front of me each weekend. They are my family and my friends. I enjoy teaching them the scriptures and I love what happens when the teaching connects with their listening hearts and seeing eyes. The miracles, answered prayers, and changed lives more than trump the difficulties of the pastoral vocation.

The moment we stop seeing people’s faces and remembering their stories, we will only see a mass of people who exist for our soulish benefit. I love a good laugh, a touching story that brings us to tears and I am fine with the family applauding when the pastor needs honest applause. I just want to make sure my heart gets life, healing and strength from something more eternal. I want to take the right medicine before I stand before the crowd so I do not settle for something that will only make matters worse.

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Church Stories Volume 1 – The Church Split that Would Not Split

My pastor friend Greg Surratt from Seacoast Church in South Carolina recently told me a troubling but hilarious story about his grandfather who was the pastor of a small church in a farming community in rural Oklahoma many years ago. Apparently, half the church got upset with him and decided to split off from the church. The problem is, they did not leave the church.

That’s right, it was the church split that would not split. Instead of leaving and starting their own church down the street, they decided to stay after realizing they had helped pay for half the building, and neither side wanted to give the other “their investment.”  The church was built with the traditional center aisle and a set of pews on either side and every Sunday the group that was mad at the pastor would sit on one side and the group that liked him would sit on the other.

When it came time for sharing testimonies, each side would try to shout louder and tell better stories than the other. If one side spoke in tongues, the other side would try to speak better and longer. Neither side would leave the church for the sake of some peace and quiet. Finally, Greg’s grandfather left and let them have the building.

This is a true story and reminds me of Paul’s letter to a similarly immature church in Corinth.

“In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.”
I Corinthians 11:18-19 NIV

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