Month: December 2012

New Year = New Opportunities

missional Another year has come and gone.  In less than twelve hours, we will celebrate the end of another year and look forward with great anticipation to what the new year will hold.  For me personally, this past year has been one of great ups and downs but as it has drawn to a close I have a renewed sense of purpose and direction.  My challenge to you today is to think of how you will go on mission with God in 2013.  I have never been much for setting New Year’s resolutions, but over the past year I have been reminded about how precious every minute of our lives are.  How will use the time that God has given you to make an impact on the Kingdom of God?  Let me suggest a few areas where you may want to set some goals for this coming year:

1.) Bible Reading– we don’t spent nearly enough time reading our Bibles as we should.  I would strongly recommend a helpful Bible reading plan, such as “The Bible Eater” plan from the Gospel Coalition or one of the many daily Bible reading plans on YouVersion.

2.) Prayer– our spiritual growth and effectiveness in ministry is directly related to the quality of our prayer lives.  This is the missing element in the lives of most Christians.  Commit yourself to a plan to increase the amount of time that you spend in prayer.  Here is a helpful message from Desiring God entitled “Helping Your People Discover the Praying Life.”   Another helpful resource to improve your prayer life is Paul Miller’s book entitled “A Praying Life”  Click on the image to learn more about this book.

Praying life

3.) Ministry involvement– how will you get involved in your local church ministry this year.  Being a Christian is not a spectator sport, get involved in the ministry of the local church and you will be surprised at the amount of growth that will occur in your spiritual life.

4.) Missions Activity- find a local or foreign missions project through your local church and sign up to go.  A few weeks ago our church sent nearly 80 people to Nashville to work with a “The Bridge Ministry” and I have heard numerous stories about the impact that this simple act of service has produced in the lives of our people.

5.) Family– The greatest mission that you have is to impact the lives of your family members for eternity.  No matter what you do this year, don’t neglect the spiritual health and well-being of your family.

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Preventing Ministry Meltdown

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Over the past couple of days I have been sharing with you about the “Anatomy of a Ministry Meltdown” and “Recovering from a Ministry Meltdown.”  In those posts, I shared the story of my own meltdown and the steps that I’ve taken over the past year to recover.  I’ve been amazed by the number of Pastors over the past year who have shared with me their own stories of the struggles involved in ministry.  According to a New York Times article entitled “Taking A Break from the Lord’s Workan unprecedented number of Pastors report being unhappy.  In an article on the 9 Marks website, Thabiti Anyabwile cites the following alarming statistics about Pastors:

50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

70% feel grossly underpaid

90% feel inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands

70% constantly fight depression

50% feel so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they could.

80% believe the ministry has negatively affected their families.

70% do not have someone they consider a close friend

40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month

Over 1700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.

Over 1300 pastors were terminated by the local church last year

Those are alarming statistics and it is time that the church as a whole wakes up to the issues.  Last year, when I had my meltdown I thought that I was the only minister who had ever gone through that kind of experience.  What I have learned over the past year is that I am far from being alone and a lot of other Pastors are on the verge of having a similar thing happen to them.  This morning I want to talk about steps that every Pastor should take in order to avoid having this kind of meltdown in the first place.

1.) Remember Who Called You and What He Called You To Do– One of my early mentors in the ministry was a man named Richard Harris, who served as the Director of Missions for the Upper Ohio Valley Baptist Association.  Richard used to make me share how God called me to the ministry within him at least once a month.  I asked him about this one time and he said, “I don’t ever want you to forget that God called you to the ministry, there will be times when the call of God is all that keeps you from quitting.”  This constant reminder of Who called me and what He called me to do served as a great source of encouragement.  Somewhere along the line, I lost sight of that factor and nearly fell apart.  My advice to every Pastor is to regularly set aside time to remember Who called you and what He called you to do.

2.)  Remember Who Empowers Your Ministry– As I see it, one of the greatest threats to every Pastor’s ministry is self-reliance.  The moment we think we are skilled enough or smart enough to handle the ministry ourselves, we are going to fail.  We need to be like the Apostle Paul who in Galatians 2:20 said, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  The key to the Christian life, as well as the ministry is to live daily in complete dependence on Christ.  In John 15:4 Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  The simple truth is that we minister from the overflow of our lives.  If we are not constantly drawing upon the resources of the Holy Spirit, we have nothing to offer and our lives and ministries will quickly dry up.

3.) Learn to Rest–  Physical rest is important and every Pastor needs to take time to recuperate and recharge but I have something even more important in mind here. Rest in the confidence of Christ.  Rest in the confidence of the sufficiency of the Word of God.  Rest in the power of the Gospel.

Recovering from a Ministry Meltdown

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Yesterday I shared about the anatomy of a ministry breakdown.  I can speak with some authority about this issue because on Christmas morning 2011, in front of the entire church I had a ministry meltdown.  The days after the breakdown were some of the strangest days of my life.  I was very fortunate to be part of a loving, supportive church with some of the godliest leaders I’ve ever known.  After meeting with our deacons and Pastoral staff, it was agreed that I would take two months away from the ministry for a sabbatical. At the end of this time, I would meet with the church leadership to decide whether or not it was time for me to return.  This decision brought a brief sense of relief to my life, but then Saturday rolled around and it hit me that I would not be in the pulpit on a Sunday morning for the first time in years.  To say that this hit me hard would be an understatement.

At about 9 pm on Saturday, January 7th I began to experience enormous waves of anxiety.  For the next 48 hours, I went through agonizing physical and emotional turmoil.  The closest parallel that I can draw to what I went through would be to compare it to someone going through drug withdrawal.  My dear friend Daryl Love talked to me later that week and shared that this is a rather common experience for Pastors who’ve had a ministry breakdown.  In his book, “Leading on Empty,Wayne Cordeiro, attributes this phenomenon with the effects of stress.  All I know was that when it was over it left me with the emptiest and loneliest feelings I’ve ever experienced.  Thankfully, several good friends began to come around me and gave me some good advice.  The most important piece of advice I received was to put together a plan of how I would use the sabbatical to get things back together.  Below are the five areas that I worked on during the next two months and that I continue to work on today. These have formed for me a pathway for recovery.

Put God back in first place– I shared yesterday that one of the biggest issues that caused my meltdown was neglect of my spiritual life.  I am convinced from talking with other Pastors that this is perhaps our single greatest problem.  It is easy for us to think that the time we spend studying to preach is a substitute for daily time alone with God.  IT IS NOT!  During the time I was on Sabbatical I dedicated every morning from 8:30 am to noon, to studying my Bible and praying.  This came hard at first and my temptation was to start preparing sermons for when I got back in the pulpit.  During the first week, my study was dry and dead.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not seem to hear from God at all.  But then it hit me, “Why I am preparing sermons?  I may never get back in the pulpit.”  It may seem odd, but that revelation was really a turning point in this process.  When I stopped trying to write sermons and simply started listening to God, He began to speak.  What He showed me about my life was not pretty and I had to completely reorganize my priorities in life, but the short version is simply that God wanted first place in my life.  For along time, I had been letting other things creep in and occupy that place.

 Put the ministry in proper perspective- If we are not careful, somewhere along the line our identities will become wrapped up in the ministry.  When this happens we start thinking that our value is determined by the success or failure of the church.  Sadly, this often results in becoming obsessed with the nickels in the offering plate and the noses in the seats.  When attendance goes down, we interpret it as failure.  When it goes up, we see it as success.  Part of my meltdown stemmed from the fact that I had let the ministry become an idol in my life.  I thought that somehow “it” would bring me satisfaction and contentment.  I learned the hard way that it won’t, only God can bring genuine contentment in our lives.  When I put God back into the first place in my life, I began to realize how out of balance the rest of my life was.  It started with strengthening my relationship with my wife, then my children, then and my friends.

Start taking care of yourself physically- During the several months leading up to my meltdown I had gone on a crash, low-carb diet.  I lost 65 lbs but in the unhealthiest way you can imagine.  The truth of the matter is that I was no healthier after losing that weight than I was before; in fact, in some ways I was worse.  This is where my friend Coach Glass helped me tremendously.  He stopped by one night and told me that I needed to start coming over the High School and working out.  Within a couple of weeks, I noticed a change in my energy level and the way I was feeling.  I also started to eat healthier and to take care of my body better.  I still have along way to go, but I can tell you that a little exercise and taking care of you health will go along way towards helping to reduce the stress and mental fatigue of the ministry.

Embrace the fellowship of other Christians- In the months leading up to my meltdown I had allowed myself to become isolated from the people who cared about me the most.  My natural introversion worked against me here.  Part of the recovery from any meltdown is to embrace the fellowship of the other Christians.  During the first month of my Sabbatical, I attended a different church.  We thought at the beginning that this was a good idea but it was not.  Being a stranger in another fellowship does not bring healing.  It was not until I started attending First Baptist during the second month of my time off that I really started to emerge from the darkness.  That first Wednesday night that I came back to church was so awkward but it was a key step in getting well again.  My advice to Pastors and churches is not to create further isolation by retreating away from the fellowship.  It was important for the church to see me and for me to see the church.

The entire process of recovery would fill an entire book, but I think you can get the basic outline from this post.

The Anatomy of a Ministry Meltdown

ID-10053881Last year on Christmas morning in front of a packed auditorium of church members and  visitors, I had a ministry meltdown.  The truth of the matter is that the breakdown had been coming for almost a year and during the previous two days I had been showing signs of a problem, but simply didn’t realize what was happening.  Up to this point, I have not spoken about the lead up to the breakdown, nor shared with anyone outside of a select group of friends and church leaders about my recovery.  But over the last several months I have had the opportunity to talk with several other Pastors and ministers about their ongoing struggles and after a great deal of prayer I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned.  Today I want to share with you the anatomy of a ministry meltdown.  Then on tomorrow’s post I will share about recovering from a ministry breakdown, and then on Friday wrap the series up with how to prevent a ministry breakdown.

Before I share about the anatomy of a ministry meltdown let me share some enlightening statistics.  According a survey of protestant ministers conducted by Lifeway Research 55% of pastor’s report that they were currently discouraged.  Thom Rainer notes that, “I suspect that if we surveyed pastors over just a few months, we would find that almost all of them experience deep discouragement.”  That same survey reported that 55% of Pastors reported being lonely.  Since having my meltdown, I have been shocked by the number of Pastors who have called me to talk about their own struggles with discouragement and depression.  I suspect that the percentage of Pastors facing these issues is not significantly higher than those in the congregation, but we are less apt to talk about our struggles.

I can identify the following issues that lead up to my meltdown:

1.)  Ministerial Idolatry– It may seem strange but one of the biggest issues that lead to my breakdown was putting the ministry first in my life.  Lay people will not understand what I mean by this but every Pastor knows the constant struggle of not letting your identity become so wrapped up in the ministry that you lose yourself.  When this happens we end up putting the ministry ahead of everything else in our lives, including God, which is the equivalent of making the ministry an idol.  When ministry becomes an idol we end up serving it rather than God. Dave Kraft has written an interesting book about this issue entitled “When Ministry Becomes A Mistress.”

2.)  Spiritual Neglect– When the ministry becomes an idol it begins to demand more and more of our time.  I ended up trusting in my own abilities and talents more than on God.  The busier and more crowded my schedule became the less time that I spent alone with God.  A wise man told me when I started out in the ministry that the most important time of my day would be the time I spent alone with God.  The time we spend reading the Bible, praying, and meditating upon the things of God are the keys to a healthy spiritual life.  I tell my young preacher boys that they must minister from the overflow of their lives.  What I mean by this is that they must constantly spend time with God and nourish their own souls so that the ministry will stream out of the overflow of their lives.  I neglected this principle in my own life and quickly ran dry.  

3.)  Physical Neglect- this is a factor that most people would not have been aware of last year, but in the weeks leading up to my breakdown I was on a crash diet.  Over the previous months, I had lost 65 lbs. and just before Christmas I stopped eating all carbohydrates, trying to lose a few extra pounds in anticipation of the holidays.  What I did not realize at the time was that this had a devastating effect on my physical body.  I lost 65 lbs. but felt terrible and wasn’t sleeping well.  In fact, I hadn’t slept at all for three days leading up to the breakdown.   I was a wreak physically and this had a major affect on the way I felt emotionally.  Our physical condition has an affect upon our spiritual and emotional lives.  We ignore this to our own peril.

4.)  Isolationism– I am an introvert by nature and being around a lot of people is always uncomfortable for me.  But over the months leading up to my breakdown I had gone from being introverted to being completely isolated.  I had been feeling bad for a while and needed to talk to someone but I simply went deeper into a shell.  Even my wife and kids didn’t know how bad I was really feeling.  Publically, I tried to maintain a front and to keep on smiling but inside I felt very lonely. In the process of my recovery I discovered an article by Thom Rainer about the introverted leader that I found to be extremely helpful.  Ron Edmondson has also written a helpful article about understanding the pitfalls of being an introvert.  For lay people, I would encourage them to read this article about understanding introverts.

If you are reading this and you are a Pastor, I am willing to guess that you know exactly what I was feeling.  At some point, we all are going to fall into one or more of these traps.  The truth of the matter is that we al know what the anatomy of a breakdown looks like, but we are afraid to take the actions necessary to stop it.  Looking back, I should have known what was about to happen and taken action to stop it.  I didn’t and ended up going through a rather harrowing experience.  But that doesn’t mean that you have to go down the same road.   If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, stop! Get some help!  Call another Pastor and talk about what you are going through.  Call a counselor and make an appointment.  Most of all, get on your knees and talk to God.

Please click on the following links for part 2 of this series: Recovering from a Ministry Meltdown.

 

Please CLICK HERE to check out my new book “Cultivating a Gospel-Shaped Attitude”

Thoughts About Sandyhook, the Loss of Innocence, and the Hope of the Gospel

This morning as I prayed for the families in Newtown, Connecticut who will be burying their children this week, I also found myself praying for all of the children who have been affected by this terrible tragedy.  Last night, my nine-year-old daughter told me about the new security procedures that have been installed in her school and how scared she was to go to school.  That concept seems so foreign to me— scared to go to school.  It dawned on my last night that my daughter’s innocence has been partly stolen.  Last week, her biggest concern at school was how she would do on a math test, this week it’s how to react if her school falls under attack.  She, like every other kid in America has been forced to come face-to-face with evil far earlier than my generation.

In all honesty, I am not sure how we are supposed to talk to nine year olds about this tragedy but the one thing I am sure of is that we must ground our discussion in the gospel.

The gospel is good news because it takes seriously the problem of evil in our world.  I wish that we lived in a Disney-like world where everything always turns out good, but the truth of the matter is that evil really does exist.   The worst part of evil is that it resides deep within the human heart.  All we have to do is open our Bible and we will see that murder entered into the world immediately after the fall (Genesis 3-4).  The devaluing of human life is not something recent; it as old as the fall and the only remedy is a fundamental change in our nature.  We cannot legislate away the evil that brought about Sandyhook or any of the other senseless tragedies that have become so common.  The answer to Sandyhook and every other evil in the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The other day, I heard someone say they could not believe there was a God because surely he would have intervened in that elementary school.  This is a common thing to hear whenever something tragic happens, but it ignores the fact that God has taken decisive action to remedy the problem of evil in the world.  As I said above, the problem of evil is really a symptom of a deeper problem— the problem of sin.   In the Bible sin is more than just an action, sin describes the nature of our heart.  Nothing we can do can ever remedy the problem of sin, so God took decisive action sending His Son Jesus to pay the penalty for our sin on the cross and to give us new life through His resurrection.  2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  God does not stand idly by and watch the evil in the world; He entered into our plight and paid the price for our sin, so that we can be reconciled to Him and to each other.  This is our hope!  This is our only hope!

I wish I could tell me daughter she is safe and that nothing bad will ever happen to her but the truth is that we live in a world stained and sacred by the evil of sin.  Therefore, I will point her to the only source of hope in the universe— Jesus Christ.  No matter what happens to us in this world, if we know Jesus, we have hope!

How Do You Know You Are Called to Ministry?

imagesOne of the most important issues every Pastor has to work through is their call to ministry. Over the years, I’ve discovered there will be times when the only thing that keeps you going in the ministry is your call.  When I teach Pastoral ministries classes  or have the opportunity to mentor young men who feel called to preach, the first two issues I talk to them about are their conversion experience and their call to the ministry.  If you are not clear on both of these issues you have no business going into the Pastoral ministry.  So let me give you just a few thoughts about how to know whether or not you are called to ministry:

1.) Can you do anything else an be happy?

This was a question that my Pastor asked me when I surrendered to the ministry and that I ask anyone who tells me they feel called to the ministry.  It is actually a question that is derived from Charles Spurgeon’s “Lectures to My Students.”  The point of this question is that the call to preach must be like an all consuming fire in your life.  Those who are genuinely called find that they simply can’t do anything else.

2.) Has God given you a clear Word from His Word?

The night God called me to preach our Pastor was preaching from Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” The moment I read these words, they thundered in my soul and I felt that God was speaking directly to me.  At the moment I had the overwhelming sense of God’s call to preach the gospel wash over my heart and I knew I could do nothing else.  I received a clear Word from God’s Word.  When I talk with men who feel called to the ministry, I always stress the importance of being able to hang your call on specific passage of Scripture.  God speaks to us from His Word!  I am not saying that the call will not be accompanied by a strong emotion or experience of grace, but apart from a clear Word from the Word of God, we are prone to misunderstand or misinterpret.  If you feel called to ministry, search the Bible until you have a clear Word from the Word to confirm your call.

3.) Do you meet the qualifications?

The qualifications for ministry are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-16.  I am not going to get into the specifics of these qualifications in this post, but I do want to say that anyone who is called to preach must meet these qualifications before they assume the office of Pastor. I am not saying that any of us are perfect and at times we all falter or come up short in some of these areas, but generally I am seeing far too many men going into the ministry trying to explain away or minimize these qualifications.  Whenever I meet someone who does not take these qualifications seriously it is evidence to me that they are not called.

4.) Has the congregation affirmed your call?

Receiving the affirmation of the church is perhaps the single most important step in confirming your call to ministry.  In my denomination, we have a two step process of first licensing a man to preach and then later ordaining.  In both of these steps, the affirmation of the church is crucial.  In licensing, the church affirms that they see the gifts necessary to be an effective minister in the life of the candidate.  They are essentially saying, “We think there is some potential here and want to give the candidate opportunities to demonstrate their call.”  Usually what happens then is the person who feels called will get some opportunties to preach and minister within the local church.  This provides the church the opportunity to examine his qualifications, his gifts, and frankly, whether or not he can preach.  Eventually, if all goes well and the candidate is called to a church he will go through ordination.  Which involves being questioned by and ordination council and then affirmed by the calling church.

My council to young men going into the ministry is to seek as much input from other members of the church as possible.  In my experience, they are usually in a better place to objectively evaluate our call to ministry.  The bottom lines is this, if you are called to the ministry the church will see it.  If you can’t convince the church you are called, then you are not called to the ministry.

5.) Can you minister for the applause of God alone?

What I mean by this statement is that in the ministry you cannot be a people pleaser.  Your only job is to please God and do what He tells you to do.  This means that you will often be unpopular or even hated for preaching the Word of God.  If you desire the applause of men more than the applause of God, you are not fit for the ministry.  You will cave to popular opinion and be unwilling to say the things that may make you unpopular.  As a preacher you must be willing to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim 4:2)  You must be willing to be faithful even when that will make you unpopular. Can you minister for the applause of God alone?  If not, don’t preach!  If so, then PREACH! PREACH! PREACH!

 

 

Theology Thursday: God is Holy

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“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.  Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings with two he covered his face, with two he covered his fee, and with two he flew.  And on cried to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; The who earth is full of His glory.” Isaiah 6:1-3 

            One of the most important habits to develop in Bible study is to look for repeated words.  Ancient writers did not have things like bold print, underlining or italics to capture their reader’s attention, so when they wanted to emphasize an idea they would repeat it.  In this passage, we see the word Holy repeated three times..  Some Bible teachers have suggested that the threefold repetition of the word “Holy” is a reference to the trinity.  However, a more likely reason is that Isaiah wants us to recognize that the central attribute of God is that He is Holy. 

            The word translated Holy in this passage means “to be set apart.”  When we say that God is Holy, we mean that He is set apart from everything and everyone else in the Universe because He created and rules over it.  The word Holy refers to the perfection and absolute moral purity of God.  Wayne Grudem says, “God’s holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking His own honor.” (Systematic Theology, 201) Henry Theissen points out that, God’s, “…Holiness is not really an attribute that is coordinate with the other attributes, but is rather coextensive with them all.  It denotes the perfection of God in all that He is.” (Introductory Lectures, 128)

Standing in the light of God’s Holiness, Isaiah immediately recognized his own sin and depravity and cried out “Woe is me, for I am undone.”  No one can understand the Holiness of God and not become aware of his or her own sin.  A.W Tozer points out the problem we face in understanding the Holiness of God when he wrote; “We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of.  God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered.  We know nothing like the divine holiness.  It stands apart, unique and unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable.  The natural man is blind to it.  He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness he cannot even imagine.” (Knowledge of the Holy, 111)

        The word Holy can also be understood as a description of all the other attributes of God.  For instance, Exodus 34:6 says that God is merciful and kind.  This does not mean that God is merely more merciful or more kind than the best person we know.  Instead, the word Holy is used to set God’s attributes apart from everyone else in the universe.  Therefore, God displays a Holy mercy and a Holy kindness.  His mercy and kindness are set apart and unique.  In other words, God is kind and merciful in ways that no other being in the universe can match.  The greatest display of His Holy love, mercy and kindness is the cross upon which He sacrificed His own Son in order to save sinners like you and me.