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View from the Pew

Life without Pastors

by on Apr.07, 2009, under View from the Pew

Dear Pastor:

How do you put up with us? Sermons on the unity of the body are answered with divisive annual meetings. Counseling sessions uncover evidence that pleas for righteous living have gone unheeded. Biblical answers for life’s problems are regularly shared but too frequently ignored. The cleansing fire of revival seems distant, and doubts about the effectiveness of your ministry linger in your mind.

If the discouragements of ministry threaten your continued call, consider what life would be like if there were no pastors to shepherd the flocks. What would the body of Christ be like without your presence? What would the nations of the world be without your collective influence? where would we be if your salt no longer seasoned and preserved us? Here are some thoughts from a layman about the importance of your pastoral role.

Each week I see evidence of what America would be like without pastors. Headlines scream out the verdicts on a nation that looks to politics, not pastors, for lasting answers. Is there any wonder we are experiencing an epidemic of divorce when the original plan for marriage has been casually cast aside? Where, aside from the biblical teaching of the faithful pastor, will men and women learn how to be true husbands and wives? Where, aside from the biblical counseling of the faithful pastor, will those struggling in their marriages hear that the answer is not to abandon each other but to renew their commitment to one another? Who in our society is capable of equipping young men and women for the future challenges of marriage, if not you?

Where will our world learn of justice except from those who know its Author? How will we experience racial harmony and reconciliation without first being reconciled with the one who made us? When will we realize the command to treat every person, rich or poor, impartially because He has commanded it and because it is right? A world without moral standards is incapable of explaining why we should exercise justice and be reconciled to our enemies. Our world does not understand the origin of its problems and the source for its answers. You do. God has entrusted you with His message. Speak and live it forcefully.

Our depth of insight often results from your pastoral care. If every person in your community knew that they are valued by God, valued so highly that they were worth the death of His Son, would we be experiencing the sense of estrangement and isolation so evident in our world? If every man and woman understood the price God paid so they could live in peace, would the problem of domestic violence be skyrocketing? If every child knew the innocence and safety of a home headed by men and women of faith, would sexual abuse be the modern plague that it is? If every son and daughter lived with parents dedicated to their biblical roles, and to each other, would we be facing our current crisis of sexual orientation and rebellion.

The church, alone among all of our institutions, has the answer. Pastors, alone among all vocations, have the ultimate calling to share the answer with people.

Each time I drive to church I pass those who live their lives without a shepherd. How do they survive without your influence? Where do they go when they are discouraged? I benefit from your teaching and encouragement. I learn from your dedication and example. Who are their role models? Rush Limbaugh? The Simpsons? Hardly! Only in your care will they experience the words of life. Only in relationship with people of faith will they find the fulfillment they seek, and God intends.

How do those who have not yet heard God’s message of hope deal with the devastating news of a lost job, a failed marriage, a positive biopsy? What sustains them in the black of night when the message of light is something unknown to them? Who comforts them with a sense of purpose when everything in their existence seems void of meaning? You do. And the people in your pews who carry your message on roads you will never travel and inject your influence in places you will never go.

The demands of life outstrip the ability of service clubs, sports, work, or any human activity to bring lasting and ultimate meaning. Twelve-step programs are not enough. Fame and power vanish. Beauty fades. Physical strength wanes. Dreams disappear. Prodigals don’t return. Expectations are unfulfilled. Spouses die. What then? Without your message- -despair. With your message–hope. Hope that does not disappoint. Hope that has a future.

You must never underestimate the impact of who you are and what you do. You must resist the temptation to dwell on the shortcoming of our work. Yes there are frustrations. But there is also fruit. It is easy to be distracted by the visible impact of the family disintegrating in your midst, without remembering the families that are intact and functioning because of your invisible influence. There are and will be financial crises that would be eased if more of us in the pews were serious about stewardship. Apathy will continue to exist. Those we esteem may fall and disappoint us. Because we still feel the effects of our sinful nature, only that amazing grace, which makes your walk and mine possible, is sufficient for us to try again. God’s mercy is new every morning.

His grace changes our hearts from an orientation of self to an orientation of others. We learn to give and be glad. His constant presence reminds us that there is still time to obey His call. We learn that He patiently waits for us to return to Him. When we fall and disappoint, He raises us up and comforts us. We learn that He does not abandon us to our failures but supplies strength in our weakness. This God who called you into ministry is a great and mighty God. One whose faithfulness never ends.

Don’t quit on us. Don’t quit on yourself. God remains at work in all of us. So take courage from this view from the pew; we are in this work together. These words, written by one person, are views shared by countless thousands. we say to you at the moment of your discouragement: “Persevere.” We pray for you at the moment of your need: “Lord, deliver.” We stand with you when you think you are all alone. God’s presence is enough. He is able. He began a good work in you. He will be faithful to complete it.

God bless you.

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Making Faith Possible

by on Mar.31, 2009, under View from the Pew

This post originally was written and published as a column in Enrichment Journal.

Dear Pastor:

Most laity have never attended church growth seminars. We don’t read books on the subject, and few of us have ever heard about “unchurched Harry and Mary”. We’re not overly familiar with what “seeker sensitive” means and, if we are, we may well harbor some doubts about its methods. But for churches seeking to grow and impact their communities with the Good News, we are the key that can lock the church’s back door and swing the entry doors wide open. If we have the vision. If we understand its importance. If we are seriously obedient to His call. That’s where you come in.

Perhaps there is no more pronounced difference between pastors and laity than the reception each of us receives on our first Sunday in a new fellowship. For pastors, the event is much anticipated and well publicized. Your background is known. The role you will play in the future is understood. You’ve already formed preliminary relationships with key members of the church serving on the Board or Pulpit Committee, and these contacts were positive or the invitation to candidate would not have been extended. Your first Sunday is filled with pressures that we will never experience; your sermon will be followed by judgment and a vote. Will they like what they see and hear? Is this the place to serve? Will these people extend a call? Your style and your sermon are the probable topics of discussion as the parking lot empties and, later, as dinners are prepared.

Contrast your experience with ours. We’re visitors, new to the area, looking for a place to worship. Like you, we drive to the church wondering if this will be the place God has for us, but our first Sunday is filled with pressures that you will never experience. Will anyone reach out? Will anyone care? No one is expecting us. No one knows who we are. We enter – and leave – anonymously. In the midst of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, we are alone. People greet us with a handshake as they move past to spend time in comfort zones with familiar faces. Friendship surrounds, but does not touch us. We are disconnected; hurt and disappointment are our homeward companions.

There are no words that can adequately express how it feels to be turned away by followers of the One who said “Come”. Yet too often laity turns away. We have forgotten what it was like when we were on the outside; sting has been supplanted by satisfaction. We have grown too comfortable, and we need to be called to repentance. You must remind us of our responsibility before God to love His people; remind us what is stake. You must move us beyond our own anxiety so that we touch the truly anxious. Help us embrace a vision for growth that is born in His heart, proclaimed from His pulpits, and flourishes in His pews.

A church that does not enthusiastically welcome and embrace is a church that eventually withers and dies. It is a church that fails to comprehend the reality and totality of grace. None of us is deserving of the friendships and favors that have been given us. They come by His grace. All of us, as recipients of grace, must now remember that we are intended to become its instruments. Will our response to grace be inclusion or isolation? Welcome or walk away? Remind us that while we are free to choose our response, only one is consistent with being a follower of Jesus.

Few of us, pastors and laity alike, take the time to think about the gift of being included. How precious are those times when we can say to others: thank you for including us. Five words. They follow times of sharing; they reflect the gift of time. When spoken often, they are enough to make a difference. When they are spoken in response to the thoughtful acts of those who value people – even strangers – they can close the church’s back door. Spend time in creating an environment of inclusion among your people, it will be an investment that pays dividends. Challenge us to act like the Samaritan, not the priest or Levite of Luke 10 when we encounter those who need kindness and friendship.

Yet growth in the church obviously has a much broader meaning than waiting for others to come, and welcoming them when they do. To grow, we are commanded to go. Our churches are not meant to be sanctuaries from the battles faced in the everyday world. They are to be staging areas for rescue parties returning to the battlefields in search of wounded and others in need. Too many of us in the pews view this work – evangelism – as something we are not equipped to do. We want to leave it the pastors, the deacons, or just about anyone other than ourselves. But we cannot.

Near the exit of a church parking lot was a sign that said: share your faith with a friend. That means evangelism … something laity must do. But since we’re not always certain how receptive our friends will be, we are sometimes reluctant to share. Somewhere, I’m not sure where, was another sign. It said: make faith possible for a friend. This also means evangelism, but it means much more than our doing something. It means we are called to be something. We are meant to be His followers. We’re not just commanded to call others to repentance, we are commanded to live out our own life of repentance. We’re called to do more than leave our sinful ways; we are called to embrace righteous ones. We are called to do more than share the words of the Good News with others, we are called to actually care for them. When our friends – and when strangers we’ve never met – are struggling, and feel like they have no hope and no place to turn, we must make faith possible for them by the example of our lives. We must model the character of godliness that attracts them into the Kingdom. When we make faith possible for friends and strangers we throw open the front, and lock shut the back, doors of the church. Call us to this task.

God bless you, your family, and the work He has called you to do.

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A Prayer for Pastors

by on Mar.23, 2009, under View from the Pew

This post originally was written and published as a column in Enrichment Journal.

Dear Pastor:

Each day, countless numbers of lay people respond on your behalf to the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit. They pray for you. They listen not only to the voice of God, but they listen for it. And when they hear His call, they answer.

Their prayers are as diverse as their backgrounds. But they are as unified as the One who prompts them into action. Some are energized by personal experience, the words of others are formed only in obedience to what He asks. One appeals for wisdom, another for strength or encouragement. The health and well-being of you and your families are regular petitions. The content of many has meaning only in the context of spiritual language.

These prayers flow from the heart of God, but they are offered with the concern of those you serve. We in the pew care about you. We are concerned that you not attempt to fulfill your responsibilities alone. Yet we recognize that in many ways we have made it more difficult for you to share with us. Still, we realize that the mantle of ministry is a garment that is not to be worn by the pastor or teacher alone, but was meant for the entire body. So we seek answers to the questions of our concern.

When the demands of ministry weigh heavily on your shoulders, who do you have to share the burden? When spiritual warfare is most intense, do you have capable soldiers to fight by your side? When you need a listening ear to help you work through the hard times of ministry, who sits with you as a quiet confidant, withholding judgment but generously sharing comfort and encouragement? Is there a Joshua in your fellowship to fight battles at your command? Do you have sufficient Aarons and Hurs to raise your arms with sustaining strength until the victory is complete?

There are no easy answers to these questions. It is one thing to acknowledge your need for laity to assist you, and quite another to identity those capable of fulfilling such trust. So we pray for you, that the gap between need and fulfillment will not be insurmountable.

Heavenly Father, you have called us all to your work, but you have asked those who serve us as Pastors to walk a special kind of obedience. We pray now for our Pastors, and for all the needs that are unique to their calling out by You. Give them a deep assurance that what they do is worth the cost. Teach them to know what it means to rest in their work.

Send people of faith to minister to our ministers. Call us, we laity, to such a ministry. Give us a glimpse of the pastor’s burden. Raise us from our sleep. Disrupt our complacency. Show us the need. Cause us to act. Let us experience the joy of serving and sacrifice, so that we too will one day hear you say “well done”.

Lord, we ask you to provide great wisdom to our Pastors. Help them to know who among us is worthy of their trust. Lead them to those that are safe, and give safety to the sharing. Provide an Aaron and a Hur to each pastor in this fellowship. Equip each of your servants with people willing to share of their own strength. Let this be as natural as Your Word describes the function of the body.

Heal the hurt in our pastors caused by our sins against them. Redeem past memories when we did not rightly handle their trust, when we violated their confidences. Do not let past scars prevent them from finding assistance for their present burdens. Give discernment to our pastors, Lord, so that they will know those with whom they can share, and give them wisdom to know the extent of the sharing. In each instance where they extend their trust, teach them what is appropriate and what is not. When to share and when to not. Whom to trust and whom to not.

Bring down the walls of distrust that too frequently were justly built, but serve only to isolate our pastors from your provision. Defeat our enemy’s plans by causing this to happen. Knit your body tightly together, so that it truly acts as a one. Remove any irritant from its proper functioning.

Lord, call and send Joshuas throughout our fellowship; men and women that prevail in battle while our pastors lead, even in those times when leadership is manifested by “sitting and resting”. Teach us Your ways that so often seem foreign to us, and cause them to become as familiar as anything is our reality. Prepare your people for this, both pastors and laity. Show us the vision you have of how we should work together. Give us your mind in this matter, we pray.

We also remember each family member of our pastors, that have many of the same needs for sharing and caring laity. Meet these needs, Lord. For the spouse who is struggling to cope, who has little hope of encouragement, we ask for your provision. Bring into these circumstances people of genuine compassion, and restore joy and meaning in the way only you can do. We know that your mercies and new every morning, Lord, but sometimes it helps us to experience your mercies through the friendship of others, and we ask you to dispatch friends – true friends – to us on these occasions.

And we remember the children. Lord, be faithful. Cause there to be role models for each pastor’s child or teenager, role models that confirm the reality of your existence to them, and assist them in coming to a saving knowledge of you as Lord and Saviour. Teach them, as you teach us all, the reality of the realm of the Spirit. Give to our pastors, Lord, the blessing of families that know and serve you.

Father, we all stand in need of your sustaining power. Give it generously. Let us experience the reality of your presence each day. May we know this because we see your church act as you have ordained it to be, with each member serving the others. Thank you, again, for the gift that you have given to us in our pastors. Thank you for all that they do. Keep them in our minds, Lord, by calling us to prayer on their behalf and to share and care for their well-being. Bless them in Jesus name. Amen.

Pastor, these words give such an incomplete story of the call He has given to us on your behalf. These are not just our concerns for you, but His. So we agree with the prompting He has put into our spirit, and we petition Him as best we know how. May you find in His provision, the answer to every need facing you and your ministry at this time. God bless you.

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Dear Pastor

by on Mar.04, 2009, under View from the Pew

This post originally was written and published as a column in Enrichment Journal.

Dear Pastor:

Please forgive us for not writing earlier to express our appreciation to you for being our pastor. We want you to know that the influence of your ministry and the model of your life mean more to us than can be expressed in an occasional hallway thank you. Too many times we don’t stop to think of all the unseen contributions you make and the sacrifice you pay to make them. We do not appreciate the depth of your work. We do not appreciate your fatigue.

We do not encourage you as we should. We fail to properly express our thanks. We are undisciplined in our prayer for you.

Forgive us for not honoring all you do and taking you for granted.

Thank you for being there — for the times your evenings are interrupted by the telephone’s intrusive ring and your rest is shortened by an unscheduled late-night trip.

Thank you for your weekends that are punctuated by the joy of weddings, and your vacations that are cut short by the sorrow of funerals. Thank you for being all too familiar with hospital corridors, waiting rooms, and nursing homes.

Thank you for the peaceful spirit you bring into the first anxious moments that surround sudden loss.

Thank you for your listening ear and godly counsel. Thank you for ensuring that our young children are properly cared for and our teens are affirmed in their journey to adulthood. Thank you for teaching them the simple truth that one day will be more important than any other: Jesus loves me, this I know.

Thank you for praying with and for our family during hard times and for sharing our joy and laughter when the darkness lifts.

Thank you for choosing to patiently love the part of us that God is disciplining and not abandon us to our failures.

Thank you for enduring all-night graduation parties and junior high camps.

Thank you for the example of your life and the precious gift of your time.

Thank you for being a friend.

Thank you for working through your own seasons of discouragement when God seems far off. Thank you for keeping on when the fruit of your labor does not appear to be an abundant harvest.

Thank you for enduring unfair criticism while embracing criticism that is uncomfortable but constructive. Thank you for the spirit of servanthood you reflect.

Thank you for sowing peace. Thank you for the integrity of your witness and for being strong enough to value the strength that comes only from being broken.

Our list of thank yous is endless.

Pastor, continue to serve for your service pleases Him. Continue on the path He has shown you. Do not weary at the challenge, but draw strength from His provision.

Thank you for being obedient to His calling.

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