Tag Archives: pastoring


communionI grew up in a very “low church” worship environment.  Our Nazarene Manual directed us to receive the Lord’s Supper at least once a quarter and, apparently, we saw that as a maximum rather than minimum frequency.   As a young pastor I followed that same schedule but over time I moved to a monthly observance, trying to find a middle way between seeing the sacrament as the featured act of worship at one extreme, and as a mandated add-on at the other extreme.

While I don’t think there is a right or wrong approach in how most churches observe the sacrament I do think that the freedom to vary the emphasis and approach and even mechanics of observing it can be an advantage for less liturgical churches.   Whether or not you agree with me here, I hope you’ll find some of these thoughts helpful.

Communion is more of a celebration than anything else.  We don’t believe Jesus dies again each time we receive communion and it isn’t only about shed blood and broken body.   Mainly, we’re celebrating the amazing love the Lord has for us.   Jesus willingly went to the cross because “God so loved the world.”  There, on that old rugged cross, he conquered sin and death.  His victory has become mine.  We don’t celebrate the brokenness and bleeding but we do celebrate the reason for it and what it has accomplished in and for us.  “We come today to celebrate the greatest act of love, the most beneficial sacrifice ever accomplished….”

Communion is the perfect platform for inviting people to come to Jesus.  As a young person I somehow had the idea that the Lord’s Supper could be hazardous to one’s health.  We were to examine ourselves and if we had experienced any spiritual failure we might be wise to skip communion that quarter.  Over time I began to understand that, while it was possible to receive communion in an unworthy manner (that is, without showing proper reverence) that, honestly, no one is worthy of receiving these emblems of the Lord’s body and blood.  Had we been worthy, he would have never had to go to the cross in the first place.  With that in mind, I began to see the sacrament as an invitation to Christ.  As I examine my heart and realize that there are spiritual failures I’m not disqualified from the bread and wine.  Rather, I’m being given an opportunity to avail myself of the mercy and grace of the Lord in a fresh way.  If I come, viewing my receiving communion as a substitute for repentance and faith I’m moving into the “unworthy” territory.  If I come seeking forgiveness and restoration, though, I find life in that sacrament.  “The Bible says we’re to examine ourselves before receiving communion.  So let’s do that.  If, as you consider your relationship with the Lord and find that things aren’t what they ought to be, that doesn’t mean you can’t receive communion today.  Instead, this is an opportunity to make things right with the Lord.  As you receive the bread and wine, receive Jesus into your life all over again.”

Communion is a great way to introduce your child to Jesus.  Honestly, I think our liturgical friends with their emphasis on “first communion” have a great approach.  However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t advantages to a less structured, low church approach.  As a pastor I allowed parents to bring their children forward to receive communion provided the parent agreed to have a discussion with that child about allowing Jesus to be their Lord and Savior before the day was over.  Symbols are powerful and children can grasp spiritual realities earlier than we might think.  I let parents decide if their children are “there” yet.  “Parents, I’ll let you decide when your children are ready to receive communion.  If you do allow your child to come today, I ask this of you: let’s agree that before this day is over you will sit down with your child and talk about the meaning of communion and how it is that a person places their faith in Jesus.”

Communion ought to be the focus of at least one service a year.  Baptism has been called the “entry sacrament” to our life in Christ.  Communion is the “continuing sacrament.”  One Sunday a year the church service should be all about the Lord’s Supper (World Communion Sunday is the first Sunday of October).   Sing songs about it, read the appropriate scriptures, and preach a sermon that reminds us why we celebrate communion.  Talk about our unity with believers across the ages and in the various traditions of Christianity.  Talk about God’s love for us and Christ’s willingness to die for us.  Remind people of its connection to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  Tell them why the Lord’s Supper is called a “means of grace.”  Then, invite people to the table of the Lord.  Pastor, on this Sunday, you do all the serving, taking the role of Jesus, himself.  “Today is World Communion Sunday and we’re going to join Christians of many traditions around the world in receiving communion.  Before we do that though, let’s think about the meaning and purpose of this sacrament of the Church.”

Thinking about pastor appreciation

Once again we’re in October, the month set aside in many churches for pastor appreciation.  This is my first October in many years to not be appreciated!  The reason is that I retired last May.  I think this gives me a unique perspective on pastor appreciation month.

Through the years I’ve been blessed in so many wonderful and undeserved ways by the congregations I’ve led.  One of my favorite honors was being given tickets to very good seats at a ball game.  Another year we were given a DVD filled with words of appreciation by members of our congregation.  Of course gift cards and cash are always welcome gifts.

I think pastors with children are especially blessed by being given a night out, including babysitting and the cost of a nice meal together.

Thinking in more general ways about pastoral care I think many pastors need to be encouraged to take some time off.   These days most pastors have spouses who work outside the home.  That means that their household seldom, if ever, gets time off together.  Say the spouse works a Monday-Friday job.  However, the pastor’s busiest days are Saturday and Sunday.  That means they never get a morning to sleep in or enjoy some “us time” around the house.  One way to bless your pastor is to arrange for your parsonage family to enjoy a long weekend once in a while.

Finally, I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Most pastors put a great deal of work into their sermons, Bible studies, etc.  They may not openly admit it, but a lack of interest by their laypeople in this element of their ministry is rather painful.  Pastors notice when ushers receive the offering and then disappear out to the church foyer for the rest of the service (specifically, for the sermon).  They notice when people skip other services, like prayer meetings and Bible studies.  It’s one thing to give the pastor an appreciation card during the month of October and something much better to allow the pastor to minister to you, fulfilling the calling of God on their life.  One of the best ways to show appreciation for your pastor is to show an interest in their ministry.  Stated rather bluntly, if you appreciate the pastor, stop hurting him or her by displaying a lack of interest in their preaching and teaching ministry.

An old preacher’s line is “saying ‘amen’ to a preacher is like saying sik’em to a dog.”  In the context of pastor appreciation I’d say that letting your pastor minister to you and then, after the service, shaking his or her hand and telling them that you appreciated their sermon is where pastor appreciation starts.

Preparing the church for a pastoral sabbatical

The value of a pastor taking a sabbatical leave after a number of years of service to a local congregation is gaining more and more recognition.  In this post I’m not going to attempt to make a case for sabbatical leave, but am going to talk about how a church can prepare for the pastor’s absence for an extended amount of time.  This subject needs careful consideration and it’s important for the pastor as well as for the congregation.  Outsiders might think that all the pastor does is preach a sermon every Sunday morning, but as they say, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Generally speaking, the pastor not only does “spiritual things” like making hospital visits and carrying a burden of prayer for the church family but also functions as a sort of CEO who makes constant on-the-fly decisions concerning how the church calendar is organized, what is emphasized in the church announcements, and what “extra” features are included in a given Sunday’s order of worship.

If the pastor just walks away, off to enjoy a month’s long sabbatical a power void will be created in the church.  Well-meaning people will sense that void and step into fill it and some, who maybe aren’t so well-meaning will see it as an opportunity to reshape the church as they see fit.  The pastor who has happily ridden off into the sunset may return to find such a mess that all the relaxation of the sabbatical will drain away as they have to deal with the destruction that the power void has created.

With all that in mind, a wise pastor and church leadership will firmly address leadership issues before the pastor leaves town.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t just engage a sabbatical interim pastor and toss it all in their lap.  There are levels of trust and responsibility that an outsider, or even an insider lacking sufficient experience, can’t address.  Make a list of exactly what that person will do: preaching, administering the sacraments, praying the pastoral prayer.  The interim will basically do the “tip of the iceberg” stuff that outsiders think is the only thing the pastor does.
  2. List all the other things the pastor normally does in a week and assign each portion of that to a different lay leader.  Who will initiate the church prayer chain?  Who will visit the sick in the hospital?   Fill every position with a willing layperson.
  3. List all the organizational responsibilities of the pastor and assign them.  Different churches have different organizational flows, but if the pastor signs off on the music, what goes into the church bulletin, etc. name the person who is going to have that authority.
  4. Name a person who will serve as “service platform manager” – they will do the things in the service that the pastor normally does: do the call to worship, offer the benediction, call for the ushers, welcome visitors, etc.
  5. Commit to the current structure of the church during the sabbatical.  There will be no changes to the order of worship, the makeup of the praise team, or the leadership of the church.  The sabbatical will not be the time when things will be changed because someone with a big voice insists that the offering should be taken differently or the announcements should be done at a different time in the service.
  6. Having prepared for all the expected things, prepare for the unexpected.  Create a “pastoral committee” of three trusted lay leaders in the church.  Grant them “pastoral authority” in the church.  When a decision has to be made that would normally be made by the pastor, refer it to the committee – any two of the three can decide.  Some churches think that they will just give the interim pastor that authority, but that’s a mistake.  That person won’t have the knowledge of people and past practices of the church to make decisions as the pastor.  If the church names just one lay person their decisions will be subject to doubt and disagreement.  A committee of three will carry a sense of authority and fairness.

All of the above can be done in just one board meeting if the pastor has done the necessary homework to list all that they do in a given week.  Having made the appointments, publish them in the church bulletin prior to and then during the duration of the sabbatical.  It will remind the congregation that the church isn’t adrift while the pastor is away.  It will remind those who have an agenda of their own that there is already an agenda in place.  Not only that, but developing lay leaders is a Biblical model for the church.  The returning pastor might just find that some of the things that have been occupying his or her time really was never his or her job in the first place!


Preaching advice for young pastors: Mother’s Day

I know I’m risking becoming the target of mothers everywhere, but I’ve got to say it: pastors shouldn’t preach about mothers on Mother’s Day. Take time early in the service. Give ’em flowers or bookmarks or some other nice gift. Pray a fervent prayer, thanking God for moms and asking his blessings on them.

Then…get on with the service. Don’t sing “My Mother’s Old Bible is True” and “When Mama Prayed Heaven Paid Attention.” Preach whatever you would have preached otherwise. Stick to the schedule…stay in your series, etc. After all, while “honoring mother and father” are certainly Biblical concepts, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t actually Biblical holidays. Change the schedule for Pentecost and Easter and maybe Ascension Day but stay the course for “Hallmark holidays.”

Moms, we love you and appreciate you, but we hope you’re okay with us not building the entire service around you.

Pastor’s day off and other pastor/time issues

I have four things to say to pastors about “days off” and how, in general, a pastor spends his or her time.

First, unless you ditch the cell phone and head for parts unknown there’s no literal day “off.” Rather, they’re just days “on call.” In this case, it’s no different for pastors than it is for many other professionals and business people. Rather, it’s just the way it is.

Second, you’re in this for the long haul. The dedicated, burning-the-candle-at-both-ends kind of pastor will get lots of applause from some in the congregation and maybe will even be “honored” by being asked to take on yet more responsibilities at the community, district, or denominational level. It’s important to remember that some of these good people will applaud you right into the grave. If your ministry is going to last a lifetime, it needs to be run at a jog rather than at a sprint.

Third, life is short and there’s no rewind button. Your kids (and then grandkids) grow up quickly. Your relationship with your loved ones needs attention. Also, while a quiet lifestyle is practically unheard of these days, for a person seeking God’s heart it’s vitally important. A less intense lifestyle may produce a spiritual depth that will flow in natural ways into your ministry…accomplishing more genuine ministry to others than a frantic run on some church schedule treadmill seven days a week.

Fourth, beware of letting others set your schedule. One group thinks you need to attend every church event (years ago the ladies at the womens meeting actually asked Jackie if I was coming – after all the previous pastor had always stuck his head in the door for their meetings – she laughed and said they had better not expect me). A certain age group would be happy if you took on the role specifically given to the laypeople of the church and spent a lot of time ministering to the “widows.” Others will make you their father confessor and lock you into a brutal counseling session schedule. If you like that stuff, okay, maybe. However, the pastor needs to have a strong sense of self identity and not let others control the schedule. (By the way, I don’t think the pastor should give a detailed time report to the board for just that reason – you’ll never win because they all think they know what you’re supposed to do with your time.)

As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think the pastor’s situation is greatly different than that of many other professionals and business owners. I guess a case could be made that since we’re dealing with people at a spiritual level and since we believe eternity is, indeed, forever, that there’s a bit more pressure, but I’m not sure that’s actually in play at a practical level.

Take some time off…not just for vacation time, or even a day or two a week “off,” but every day. Don’t be ashamed or apologetic. Go toss the ball around with your kids. You and your spouse go for a long no-church-business-discussed walk. Watch some TV or read a nothing-to-do-with-church book. Sit around thinking about the things of God, not for a sermon, but just so you’ll understand such things better.   In the long run, you’ll likely do more for the Kingdom that way.

Reflections on 40 years of sermon preparation

It’s funny how decisions made early in one’s career get carried forward for decades. In my early preaching I wanted to “hide” my sermon notes in my Bible (not to be deceptive, just so I could hold my Bible in hand and preach without having to carry a notebook too). I turned the page sideways and typed the sermon outline in two columns, creating a page one and page two. I then folded the page in half and used a rubber band to hold it in my Bible in the same place as my text.

That didn’t work very well because it was hard on the binding of the Bible. Over time, I moved the sermon outline to a notebook that holds the paper with a clip on top. It is the same length and width of the average Bible. I kept the landscape/two column outline approach. Ultimately, I went to a fuller outline and ended up filling front and back of a letter sized sheet of paper, but still using two columns – creating “4” pages of sermon notes.

If you are still with me, looking back, had I not wanted to hide my notes in my Bible I probably wouldn’t have gone with the landscape, two column approach that I’ve now used around 40 years!

I’ll add this: using a manuscript or decent outline is invaluable for revisiting passages. I very seldom just re-preach a sermon, but having exhaustive material from a previous sermon is invaluable to an every Sunday preacher.

Sometimes going back and reviewing old material is quite humbling to me and I’m tempted to write a letter of apology to a previous congregation. At other times, I’m amazed at how the Lord was helping me in those days with insights that are still valuable to me today.

In general, I think I turned a corner around 40 years of age. Work I did after that is generally more to my liking than what I did in my 20s and 30s. Maybe at 45 or so I finally grew up (not kidding here).

More pastor appreciation month

We’re absolutely humbled by all the nice things being done for us by the good people of our congregation during pastor appreciation month this year.  Apparently, folks have signed up to take a turn blessing us for practically every day of the month.  We’ve received nice cards, gift cards, and invitations to meals.  Last Sunday the song “Blest be the tie the binds” was inserted into the order of service.  The first verse was sung as usual, but the rest of the verses were about the Lord’s blessing our ministry.  It was sung in good humor, with laughter and it was fun and embarrassing at the same time for us.

Just to make things clear, we don’t deserve all this.  I’m just an average pastor who is thankful for the privilege of serving some wonderful people.  These days, I’m asking the Lord to help me, in some small measure, to live up to all the kindness I’ve been shown.