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Analysis of Church Conflict Management

In my articleAnatomy of Church Conflict Management“, I suggested that there are some familiar mistakes that churches and their leadership tend to make in regards to conflict and crisis management.  I also quickly summarized what effective leadership before, during and after these events occur might look like.  It is to these leadership needs during conflict and crisis that I would like to return now.

It is necessary for every church to have a conflict and crisis management plan.  This plan needs to include:

  • Knowing the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Working the crisis management and communication plan,
  • Communicating the unfolding development of these plans to those who need to know, and
  • Identifying the desired stages and outcomes of working these plans, and then, finally,
  • Evaluating how these plans worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it/them work better next time.

Identifying capable leadership to handle conflict and crisis is important.  Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with them.  At the same time, leadership directly involved may not be good candidates because of conflict of interest or lack of objectivity.  A team of three to five people who are spiritually mature, skilled communicators, emotionally mature, and hold the respect of others in the organization make a great team.  For many churches, this group may be the Board of Elders.

Mt, Adams, Washington State

Clear Skies Over Mt. Adams, Washington State

If this is not possible, then working with a third-party dispute resolution or crisis management team is the best option.  This may come from a hired company, one of the many non-profit dispute resolution centers around the country, denominational leadership, or a team from another church in the community who has developed their own team.  The important point is to know who – what team – you are going to look to before the need arises.  Everyone in the organization needs to be informed of who this team is and what the “triggers” are that call for their involvement.

Not all conflict or crisis is the same.  Some involve only a couple people or a small group.  Others, however, involve a larger portion of the organization and have potential to cause a ripple effect that disturbs the whole organization.  It is important for every leader to know what level of disruption is being faced.  This will be an important trigger that sets in motion the work of a conflict and crisis team and the plan that has been established.

A carefully scripted plan for communication, handling confrontation, and identifying the small-step goals to reconciliation, restoration and peace must be established in the calm before the storm.  In the heat of a crisis is not the time to attempt to develop a plan.  The plan must be clear enough so that steps can clearly be taken to move toward progress.  Getting “stuck” in a conflicted crisis is not to anyone’s benefit.  Every plan must answer simple questions:

  • Who is involved?  Who needs to know?
  • What are the issues and how can they be discovered?
  • How can miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided as much as possible from those who are on the fringes of the problem?
  • How will the process and its milestones to restoration be communicated to those who need to know?
  • How will “success” in terms of reconciliation and restoration be recognized?
  • What will be the terms in which irreconcilable differences and hurts are recognized and a “parting of ways” a recommendation for the organization to move forward?
  • When will the end of the process for the team be recognized?

Every conflict or crisis event must also involve a debriefing and evaluation time for the team.  This may also included key individuals involved who were not on the team.  This will not only allow the team members to take away “lessons learned” from the experience, but it will allow them to adjust the conflict resolution and crisis management plan in order to be more effective in the future.  Just as important, is the opportunity for the team members to sort through their own thoughts and feelings after handling such an emotionally charged situation.  This helps the team to make sure that as individuals they are not carrying away any unnecessary emotional or psychological baggage.

Low Clouds Surrounding Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cloud Skirted Mt. Hood, Oregon

Every event is different.  Then again, every event is similar.  Where the congregation and its leadership is immature and/or unhealthy, it almost always waits too long to seek intervention.  One thing is clear.  Conflict resolution involves as much art as it does science.  In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, here are three things that I have come to realize about church conflicts:

  • The “problem” is almost never “the problem.”
  • Change and growth never come without problems (i.e. conflicts).
  • I can be my own worst enemy in that I cause most of the problems (i.e. conflicts) I experience.

Of all places, the faith community should be a place where the practice of our spiritual principles and precepts enable everyone to overcome fears, doubts, misunderstandings, chaos, conflicts, confusion and even anger.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my last article, there are myths about itself that the Church must overcome.  Don Bussart, associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, identifies these as:

  • The Church must suppress conflict to maintain its image to as a loving community united in God’s service.
  • Conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church.
  • A loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene.
  • The administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change.
  • Individuals and the church as whole should be “spiritual” — that is, should be “above” conflict.

The fact of the matter is that the pastor (lead or senior pastor) is most often the first line of defense in dealing with conflict and interpersonal crises in the congregation.  Marlin Thomas in Direction Journal astutely puts the pastors role in perspective:

“For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his [or her] heavenly calling.  Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.”. . . The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.”  [Bracketed italics added.]

One of the biggest needs a pastor must fulfill is to help the congregants become grace-filled, permission-giving members.  This is outlined simply by Thomas as:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.

This character development doesn’t happen over night.  It is a long journey.  However, the benefit is growing into grace-filled individuals who have an internal agility (i.e. flexibility) to deal with different people and growth and changes that pose potential conflict.  The larger the capacity of a congregation to practice this in interpersonal relationships the better its ability to handle and recover from conflicts and interpersonal crises.

Mt. Rainier, Washington State

Mt. Rainier Behind Safeco Field

It is interesting to note that most statistics tell us the the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. consider themselves to be Christians.  Of these, four out of ten have dropped out of church due to a “painful” or “agonizing” ordeal in a church.  I have pastored Assembly of God churches for 25 years and can attest to many encounters with people who no longer attend church because it was simply too emotionally painful for them to return.  Either the people in the church or the building, or both, held such bad memories that even returning to the building proved impossible.

Today, I attend a Central United Protestant Church, which is a trans-denominational church left over from the protestant military chapel supplied by the U.S. government’s Hanford Project during the cold war.  It is under the leadership umbrella of the United Methodist Church but serves five other denominations.  Not surprising, I have discovered similar stories around the community concerning this church.  So, this issue goes beyond denomination labels, church sizes or community settings.

There are many resources for church leadership and their congregations to use.  A perusal of the world wide web will uncover a library of articles, papers and blogs for careful consideration.  Independent consultants and denominational resources are available to most every church.  In a couple of instances from my experience regarding small independent churches, calling in respected and recognized pastoral leadership from other churches to offer guidance and counsel is a possible alternative.

Where there are people there will be conflict.  Where there are people passionate about issues there will be passionate conflict that could lead to interpersonal and congregational crisis.  However, such occasions need not be a debilitating and defeating event.  Instead, they could be transforming events that help individuals grow in grace and help congregations grow in expressing mature Christ-like love and unity.  How we face it will be the determining factor.  The question is whether we will take the time to thoughtfully prepare for it before we face it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Every congregation and its leadership, if it is missionally minded at all, struggles with being relevant in its community context. It will ask the questions:  Do we communicate our message in a way so that people can hear it?  Do our ministries and programs really meet the real needs of real people?  Is our message getting outside our own “four walls” and to people who are spiritually far from God?  In the end, what these and other questions like these want to know is simply, “Are we making a difference in our community and the lives of those in our congregation?

In my last article about small churches called “Small Church Big Impact“, I tried to emphasize the need for the small church to discover its own God-given “spiritual DNA”: spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Focusing upon what it does have instead of what it does not have empowers the small church to fulfill its unique mission in God’s plan.  As I explain in my article, resisting the temptation to think that it must follow some other “successful” church model is key to this.

Most of the conferences and books available to churches and their leadership are geared toward large churches (350+ adherents).  Most of the popular stuff is produced by mega-churches (2,000+ adherents).  This leaves out the vast majority of churches, which are small and in rural contexts, though many are also in small cities and even suburban and rural settings.  The point is that the available resources for helping a small congregation and its leadership to succeed are almost non-existent.  The message to these churches is that they are not “successful” nor are they relevant.  However, nothing could be further from the truth!

My personal experience among small Assembly of God congregations, some of whom were “Home Missions” churches, is that they not only can be relevant but they can be very successful in their ministry context. They may not win the “fast growing church” award or the “largest church” award but they are uniquely position to have a very large ministry in a small community context.  If we were to measure impact by percentages, these small community churches would be much more successful and relevant than their mega-church metropolitan counterparts.

How is this possible? In my previous article, “Small Church Big Impact“, I outlined some critical thinking that makes this possible.  Let me now take this to a practical level and suggest some ways and give some examples of how this is possible.  Here are three simple steps:

  • First, clearly define what you are called to accomplish in and for God’s Kingdom.
  • Second, create a simple strategy of how you are going to accomplish it.
  • Third, do not let anything get in the way of these two things.

Sounds simple, right?  It is not. Anyone who has done church ministry for very long will tell you that there are a lot of things that will come along to distract a congregation and its leadership.  A new opportunity arises and, instead of asking how it fits with the first two steps above, there is immediate pressure to “do something.”  A new individual or family arrives and their ideas and past experiences push the limits of those two steps.  Someone comes back from a church conference or visiting another church and wants to push the church to do it just like them.

This is not to say that how a church thinks of itself and the strategies it uses will not change. They will change.  Hopefully, however, that change will take place intentionally with the previous things discussed in mind: spiritual gifts, talents, resources and sense of mission to accomplish.

When I arrived in West Richland, Washington, to begin pastoring a small congregation there, I found a congregation that was pushing the limits of what it could and was exhausted. Like many other small churches, they were attempting to keep up with the larger churches in the community.  Some of that was driven by a fear that if they did not attempt to do so they would lose people to those larger churches and their ministries.  Regardless, a number of leaders, especially in the children’s and youth ministries, were facing burnout.

Change even in a small congregation does not happen over night. It took some time to get everyone to on the same page as to what was the simple mission of the church.  We prayed and looked to Scripture and finally settled upon two simple things: make strong disciples and attempt to reach people far from God.  Next, we asked ourselves what were the simplest and most strategic ways to accomplish these two things.  Things changed for the better.

As a congregation we decided that attempting to do all of the children’s and youth programs were not possible without the required number of people. Many of our congregants were involved in two, three and four ministries.  That pace was not sustainable nor was it healthy.  So, we simplified.

We wanted to make sure we discipled our children and young adults.  Since most of our congregation was made up of young families, we gathered together to strategize. Soon, we settled upon the idea of moving all of our Christian Education or Discipleship to Wednesday evenings.  Wednesday evenings were to become our strategic discipleship nights for everyone.

The tough change was eliminating Sunday School. We lost one family because they could not see going to a church that did not have a traditional Sunday School (even though they did not regular attend it).  However, this made Sunday mornings much easier for our young families.  Sunday mornings were dedicated to worship experiences either together as a whole congregation or specifically for children.  We created children’s church worship teams that rotated monthly to provide worship experiences for our children.  Some of our youth were involved in helping to lead.

This whole process took about 18 months. We first decided that it was something we were going to experiment with to see how it worked.  We figured that we could always go back to what we were doing if it did not work.  However, it ended up being a huge success for those involved in these ministries as well as for our families.  We found that what we were able to provide was much more effective and meaningful.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When it came to reaching people far from God (the second part of our mission), we decided that the best way for us to do this as a congregation, outside of everyone’s personal relationships and circles of influence, was for our whole church to find a way to be “vocal and visible” in the community. So, we targeted a community event in which we wanted to be present.  We could not do every community event, but we could do one event really well.  We chose “West Richland Days” and provided a booth that served BBQ pork or pork sausage sandwiches.  Also, our youth set up a booth that served Italian Sodas.

We looked at these more than just fundraisers. They were a way for us to interact with people in our community.  People in our community could see us as a congregation and have a chance to know us.  We also prayed for the Lord to give us “God moments” in which we could share with someone who was feeling far from God.  We got to interact with community leaders and organizers.  We all saw friends from our community as they wandered by our booths.  Most importantly, we were together outside of our church walls and being present in our community as a witness to Christ.

Every community has these kinds of opportunities. A congregation of any size can figure out ways to be “vocal and visible” within its own community so that people know that it is there to glory God and offer hope to people.  The toughest sell as a church leader is often the people within one’s own congregation.  Inevitably, someone wants to know the cost, or whether it was worth the cost and time, or whether the effort actually resulted in someone coming to church.  However, spiritual life is more like sowing for a future harvest than a drive-up ATM machine.

If church leaders and their congregations want immediate “pay-backs” then they are going to be sorely disappointed. All of our spiritual lives are a journey.  We do not know the spiritual journey that someone else may be on.  All we can do is be in a place where we are available with the presence of God and God’s message.  Some people’s stories take years to develop.  Every congregation must determine to be in the race for the long haul.  In the business of changing lives and transforming communities, there is no race to the winner’s circle.  It’s a marathon.

There are churches and their leaders that are doing this very well.

  • The church in Walhalla, ND, that serves the snowmobilers every year during the annual snowmobile run.
  • The church in Quilcene, WA, that provides after school homework help for students a few days a week.
  • The church near Lake of the Woods, MN, that serves anglers during the annual ice fishing tournament.
  • The church in Pasco, WA, that supplements the local food bank with donated items of their own to families in need.
  • The church in Richland, WA, that holds a week-long annual “Raise Your Tents” awareness for the homeless event that includes staying in tents in January, donating food to the food bank, and donating monies raise to the local homeless shelter.

There are many, many more examples that I am not even aware of myself. Whatever their chosen mission, these churches have chosen to keep it simple, targeted and sustainable.  This has also made these churches, despite size, very relevant to their communities.  It has given them a voice in their communities and earned them the right to be heard.  Nothing could be more relevant than that.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises

Olympic National Park, Hoh Rain Forest - Trail...

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Some people prefer to call them coincidences of life. Others just chalk them up to luck.  The cynical see only random odds at work.  Spiritual people refer to them as God moments, answers to prayer and even miracles.  I like to think of them as God surprises; moments when the deepest prayers and desires of the heart are met with unexpected and unexplainable answers.

When my family was younger and fewer by two children, I was pastoring a small country church on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State that did its best to provide for us.  With two young children, school bills from college and regular living expenses, it was never quite enough.  So, besides pastoring, I found work at the local family owned hardware store, cutting fired wood, picking clams and oysters, and coaching at the school.

After having been there a couple of years, my wife and I had a strong longing to vacation out on the ocean beach of the Washington coast.  The problem was we had no means to do it.  I shared our dream with a few people.  It seemed like a great idea but not a very practical one.  Nevertheless, we sighed and dreamed.  Maybe someday.

Then, one day, a surprise came our way.  There was someone who had an old 1961 14′ travel trail that they wanted to get rid of right away.  Would we be interested in it?  Sure!  Though, at the time, I was not sure what we would do with it since I did not have a vehicle to pull it anywhere.  But, living in a logging community, I thought that perhaps someone would be willing to loan us their truck for a couple of days.

The trailer was delivered. My wife and I discovered that the previous owner had actually lived in it.  He had been a heavy smoker and drinker.  It would need a lot of tender care and heavy cleaning to make it acceptable to my wife and kids.  So, we cleaned, painted, scraped and washed.  It would never look like a 1990 model.  But even a clean 1961 model was better than nothing and better than a family tent on the rainy Washington coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

What seemed like an impossibility at one point suddenly took on the looks of a possibility. A friend came through with the offer of his truck.  We would just exchange vehicles when the time came.  So, my wife and I began to make plans to take our two children to coast camping at Kalaloch Beach south of Forks, Washington.

As the time approached we grew excited. But I also grew anxious.  I planned a budget for the trip: gas and groceries.  Since we lived from payday to payday, there was no extra left over.  It seemed like an extravagance we could not afford, especially since I would also be taking a few days off of work.  How would I replace that missed income?  We may as well have been planning a trip to the Caribbean.  I figured that to replace my income and pay for gas and groceries would take about $500.  That was about 1/3 of my month’s income.

We went ahead and made plans and prayed. God had answered prayer before and perhaps he would once again smile upon us.  However, our finances did not change as the week of our planned vacation approached.  What would we do if we ended up not having the money?  Simple.  Stay home.  It wouldn’t be the end of the world.  Still, I could not help but feel that it sure would be nice to get away for a short time with my family.

Finally, the week approached. We were planned to leave on a Monday.  The weekend before came and still no financial means to even pull out of the driveway.  I resolved myself to the idea that it just would not happen.  On that Sunday morning, as I prepared early for the beginning of the Lord’s Day, I made one final appeal to the Lord as I wandered around the church building completing last minute preparations.

Dear Lord, it sure would be nice if I and my family could take this vacation.”

You know, Lord, in your economy, $500 is not very much money.  Isn’t there a way for you to make that happen?”

(Sigh)  “I know that it is not the end of the world if we do not go to the beach as a family…sure would be nice, though.

Did I happen to mention that it’s only $500?”

Thanks for the trailer anyway.  I’m sure it will come in handy some day.  Just maybe not this week, huh?”

Finally, I dropped it. There was no use getting worked up or anxious over it, I thought.  There were a lot bigger issues in the world than whether the Almberg family took a vacation to a beach.  So, I continued my preparations and spent some time in prayer for the people about to arrive that morning.  Some of them had a lot larger problems than I was facing.

People began to slowly arrive for Sunday School. I greeted them at the front doors.  It was always fun to see people arriving.  I especially enjoyed interacting with the kids coming through the doors.  Soon, laughter and light conversation were filling the halls and rooms of the building of that little congregation.  I’ve always imagined that God enjoyed those sounds as much as he ever did the singing of hymns and choruses.

In the middle of a conversation, the church phone rang. I did not worry about it as I always had people who could not stand the idea of an unanswered phone and would always be there before me.  So, I left the phone to be answered by whoever got there firsts.  Usually, it was Nancy, one of the pleasant ladies who volunteered in our office during the week, or Bill, a vigilant usher and deacon of the church.

Classic Corvette, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Corvette, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

We were minutes from starting our Sunday morning opening exercises when I was called to the office. The phone call was for me.  I dislike last minute phone calls right before church starts.  Usually, I make sure people understand that unless it’s an emergency they are to offer the help the caller needs or I can return the call after lunch.  However, this caller insisted on talking to “the pastor.”

Hello?” I answered a little impatient because of the timing.

Hi Ron.  This is Pastor Jim,” the caller identified himself.  I worked with Pastor Jim as an associate/youth pastor on his staff in Bremerton, Washington.  I wondered what was important that he would call me since he must also be preparing for his own busy Sunday morning.

Hi, Jim!” I replied, truly happy to speak to a good friend.  “What can I do for you?”

Sorry to call you so late, right before church,” he apologized.  “But I needed to talk to you and figured this would be a good time to guarantee I would catch you.  Aren’t you and your family planning on going on vacation this next week?

Yes,” I replied.  “We were hoping to leave tomorrow.”

Well, you came up in conversation in our church board meeting this last week.  The board here wanted to bless you and your family.  So, I was going to put a check in the mail for you.  I was hoping to catch you before you left, but could remember when you planned on leaving for vacation.  So, shall I put it in the mail this week or hold off until you get back next week.

Now I am surprised and somewhat taken aback.  We will not be able to leave with what we have but is the amount they are planning to send us enough to cover our expenses?  It seems we are not going anywhere this week anyway.  So, I decide…

“Go ahead and put it in this week,” I told Jim.  “We may have to postpone our plans.  We’re a little short in finances.  Your check may help us get on the road though.  Please make sure you let the guys on the board know how much we appreciate this and how thankful we are for their generosity.

Jim paused on the other end for a moment.  “Why do you need to postpone your plans?”

We’re a little short of funds,” I understated the situation.

“Oh,” Jim commiserated as a pastor of a small church himself.  “Well, I hope what we are sending you will help out.  How does $500 sound?”

I almost started laughing out loud.  “You know,” I told Jim, “that would be great.  That is exactly the amount of money I have been asking the Lord to provide so that we could go.”

Well, then, praise the Lord,” Jim encouraged.  “Maybe you don’t need to cancel your vacation indefinitely.  Just wait a couple of days for the check to get to you.  I’ll put it in the mail the first thing in the morning!

Wow,” I replied still somewhat stunned and surprised.  “Uh, yeah, we can wait a couple of days.  I don’t think that will be a problem at all.”

Great!  Well, you have a great Sunday and greet your wife for me,” Jim finished.

I will.  And you have a great Sunday, too, Jim.  Again, thanks so much,” I stammered still in shock of what had just transpired.

The rest of the Sunday was somewhat of a blur. I told the congregation that we would be gone for a few days on vacation, though we were leaving a few days later than originally planned.  Everyone was happy for us and wished us a great time at the ocean beaches.

When I arrived home after closing up the church, my wife asked me, “You sounded pretty confident that we are really leaving this week.”

Yes,” I said.  Then I shared with her my conversation on the phone with Pastor Jim just before church started.

Coincidence?  Luck of the draw?  A special alignment of the stars for the Almberg family? Let the skeptic and the cynic decide for him or her self.  I think that too much took place for all of that, which would require a greater amount of faith than simply believing that the Creator really does interact with his creation.  I wish that it happened more often than I have experienced it.  On the other hand, I think that the Creator enjoys showing up with God surprises just to let us know that he is here and he knows.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Ecclesiatical Darwinianism

Many churches and denominations depend upon an entrepreneurial spirit in its leadership to grow. This has its strong points and its weak points.  These types of leaders provide innovation, creativity and are more likely to start church ventures.  They are not adverse to risk and often lead congregations and their churches through transformations.  Unfortunately, these leaders and their churches also tend to become personality driven around the dynamic leader.  This has its own challenges for churches and denominations.

On the other hand, these types of leaders are rare and successful ones not all that common. Many who answer the call to ministry operate with much different personalities and giftings.  In these churches and denominations, they do not usually fair too well since their support is dependent upon how well they can grow their own congregation.  There is no denominational or broader church support.  This is not always a bad thing, particularly when the church and its leadership are in a community context where growth is a possibility.  However, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches in medium to small size communities.

The effect upon the church, then, is that small-town churches often become training grounds for pastors hoping to one day lead a church that can be self-supporting, which includes a livable wage for him and his family. Some pastors are able to make the transition to larger churches; others are not.  Some are given an opportunity to “move up” to larger churches; many are not.  After all, about 80% of American churches are congregation under 100 people and that vast majority of them are in rural settings.

More to the point is the pressure this places upon the individual pastor and his family. For example, I pastored Assembly of God churches for many years.  This denomination fits this scenario well.  Its churches are governed congregationally and considered to be a part of a “cooperative fellowship” with other Assembly of God churches.  (I would always joke that while this is true, our independent nature made it so that we did not cooperate very well with others.)  While Assembly of God pastors are governed by a presbyterium – church elders – at the denominational level, each church governs itself.

I like to call this method of church governance “Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.” It is simply the approach to churches and pastors that says, “If you are called of God, then you will succeed.  However, if you fail and do not survive, then you were not called of God in the first place.”  In a theologically Arminian denomination like the Assemblies of God, it is a very Calvinistic approach to the call of God concerning churches and pastoral leadership.  At its core is “the survival of the fittest” or most able.

At the same time, the Assemblies of God in particular, is able to send missionaries fully funded and supported to the farthest reaches of the earth. The same care and concern is not provided for those planting or pastoring churches in their own soil in the United States.  This is changing today with a more proactive approach on the denominations part in planting churches and equipping church planters.  However, for the vast majority of pastors who go to their small and usually rural churches, they are largely left on their own with congregations and churches buildings that are aging.  It is no wonder, then, that their pastoral candidates who come out of their Bible schools or seminary training are unable or unwilling to go to these locations.

I started out in ministry in what the Assemblies of God called a “Home Missions” church. This is a church that is being planted in a community, may receive very limited temporary support and is not yet fully independent in its governance.  As a bright-eyed and optimistic young pastor, I expected the church to grow and do well even though it was located in a small Pacific Northwest logging community of only about 1,200 people.  In retrospect, while the years there were extremely tough for my family financially, they were some of the most rewarding times of ministry.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, when other pastors congratulated on small spiritual victories I would share with them with something like,Boy, that’s great, Ron.  I can see that someday the Lord is going to place you in a thriving, larger church.”  Maybe I am wrong, but it always came across to me as, “Someday the Lord will reward you with a real church!”  However, as my young family grew, it became more and more evident that I would not be able to support my family in that community despite my several attempts at earning other income: working at the local hardware store, coaching at the school, chopping and delivering firewood, picking oysters, digging clams, etc.

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, the Presbyterian Church in town had a pastoral change. The 100 year-old congregation was looking for a pastor.  Imagine my surprise to find out that the pastor was guaranteed a salary, with benefits, and a parsonage.  The starting salary then was $36,000.  I contemplated the idea of switching denominations to stay in the community and pastor…well, only for a brief moment.

I remained loyal to my denomination and local congregation. However, as my pastoral experience has broadened over the last 25 years, I have had an opportunity to look at numerous church governance models.  I came to a conviction that the “Ecclesiastical Darwinian” model is not the most successful or most healthy.  I see other denominations that do a much better job at helping a congregation match a pastor with a congregation, rather than leave it up to the “luck of the draw” or a weekend pastoral song-and-dance routine.  I also see other denominations that do a much better job at supporting the local church pastor, not just financial but also spiritually.

When I was involved in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model, I rarely heard from district or national leadership unless it was initiated by me or unless there was church trouble. Other than demanding my tithes and desiring my attendance at their sponsored events, I did not have much support.  Any spiritual support I had while in ministry came for friends in ministry, some who were other Assembly of God ministers but most who were not.

Congregations in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model do not fare much better. They are expected to ‘make it on their own.’  Many of them, particularly in rural areas, are surviving just above life support.  Their pastors are bi-vocational and their facilities decaying and outdated.  When it comes time to select a new pastor, the best they can expect from district leadership is a list of available pastors or pastors seeking changes.  Otherwise, they must sort through the resumes they receive, pray about it and pick one.  They may as well tack them to a wall and throw a dart at them blindfolded.  If they choose well, then they and their new pastor are congratulated.  However, if they choose badly, well, they either did not pray enough or the pastor wasn’t called of God to go there in the first place.

For churches and denominations stuck in this model, change will be difficult; perhaps impossible. However, speaking personally for myself and my experience, I believe that a much better job can be done.  The same care we take to match a missionary to an overseas calling and assignment, ensure that they are fully supported and cared for, and given accountability and spiritual support, could and should be applied to the mission field we know as the United States of America.  How that transition in involvement takes place is another issue.  All I know is that there has got to be something better than ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.’

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is an old church hymn that begins its chorus with the words, “I love to tell the story.” Sharing the good news of God’s work through his son, Jesus the Messiah, is precisely just that – telling the story.  It is his story and he is still writing it in and through the lives of people delivered from spiritual bondage and lostness.  It is a simple story.  And, when an individual’s life becomes changed by that story, it becomes a very personal story.

Unfortunately, like so many other things we do surrounding God, we have made this story really complicated. We cannot simply tell it as it is given to us.  Now we must qualify it and explain it to suit our own understanding of God.  The simple story of God’s message of rescuing humankind through the work of his son, Jesus, gets really complicated with layers of theology and prescriptions for spirituality.  I’m certain that if Jesus were to sit in many of our churches today he would be dumbfounded and caused to ask, “Are you talking about me?”  It is so hard to tell sometimes.

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently, a gentleman approached me about doing the “preaching” portion of a service in a retirement center. He wanted to assure me that everything would be taken care – music, songs, prayer and even communion.  All I had to do was show up and deliver a sermon.  “After all,” he qualified, “I’m not a pastor or clergy personI don’t mind doing the song service or communion, but I can’t preach.  I’m not qualified since I’m not a reverend.”

I was speechless. Standing before me was an elderly gentleman who had a passion for serving the retirement community around us.  His manner and speech told me he was well educated and very articulate.  He was a seasoned person of the church, probably had been going for 30 or 40 years.  I thought it odd that he had no problem serving the Lord’s Supper as a non-clergy person since in many denominations that is a service only a clergy person can perform.  So, obviously his spiritual background did not come from such a heritage.  However, not able to “preach;” that is, share the gospel, tell the good news that is in Christ Jesus, teach the way of the Lord?

Since when did telling the story of God require theological credentials? I am often reminded of the apostles who were unlearned men – uneducated.  Yet, the people of their time could tell that they had been with Jesus.  They became faithful witnesses of Jesus and his ways.  Telling the story was a very simple endeavor.  It focused upon the life, ministry, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus the Messiah.  It was supported with Old Testament examples of prophetic fulfillment.

Have we made our Gospel too complicated when the average person in our church does not feel qualified to share it with others? I am not addressing shyness or an ability for public speaking here.  I am only talking about telling the story of Jesus.  What have we done with the story of God’s message in his son when those who sit in our chairs and pews for years cannot tell others – or do not feel qualified to tell others?  What have we subtly communicated to them about telling this story when we have only professional clergy share it week after week?

I gently prodded the man standing before me.Why do you think it takes a pastor to preach?” I asked.  “You sound like an intelligent and articulate person.  You seem to know your Bible and it sounds to me like you have quite a number of years of experience in your spiritual journey.  Why don’t you share the gospel with them?”

The elderly gentleman blinked at me like I was speaking Old Testament Hebrew.  “Well, because I don’t have the credentials.  I would hate to say something wrong and teach something in error.”

I attempted to counter his sense of insecurity with a suggestion.  “Well, it is true that there are some parts of the Bible that are harder to understand than others.  And it is true that there are some theological issues that can boggle the sharpest minds.  However, the story of Jesus about the things he did as an example for us and the things he taught us are pretty straight forward.  What if you just concentrated on those things?  That’s what the Gospel is really all about any way, isn’t it?”

True,” he answered.  “I just feel inadequate…like someone more qualified should be preaching.”

I’ve preached for 25 years and still always feel inadequate, even with a Bible School and Seminary education,” I offered as an encouragement, which is very true about me.  I’ve never had a sermon or Bible lesson where I felt completely adequate for the job or occasion.  “Anyway, it is not the vessel that gets the glory.  It is what is poured out of the vessel that everyone remembers.  So, just focus on telling the story of Jesus and see what God will do by his Holy Spirit in the lives of the listeners.

At that, my elderly friend seemed relieved.  “I think I can do that,” he offered.

I can offer you some ideas and moral support, but I think you are up to the task.  You probably have for a long time.  You just need someone to push you on to the stage.”  I smiled and offered a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  I could see that he was mulling this new idea over.  There was no doubt in my mind that he would do just fine or actually quite well.

So, now I am waiting to hear how he did his first few times. I am sure that in telling the story his life was changed in the telling of it and his listeners lives were changed in hearing it.  That is, after all, the most basic reason why believers and seekers all gather week after week.  We love to tell and hear the story of God’s great love in a Savior who died for us and rose again.  From this recent experience of mine, it seems that each of us needs more work on simply telling the story.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Restructuring Discipleship

I am a bibliophile.  I’ll freely admit it.  I am a reader and collector of books.  My wife, Kelly, would say too many books.  Alright, I probably have a couple thousand too many.  However, each one is special to me.  I have a connection with each one.  That is why when I went to “weed-out” my library a couple years ago I could only part with a box full of books out of my whole library.  And some of those in that box were painful to part with as I donated them to the local library for their book sale.

Out of all of the books I have read over the years, while I have received enjoyment and learned a great many things from them, only a handful of them have truly been life changing and transforming.  Those special books along with their authors still provoke my thinking and reflection to this day – no matter how long ago I read them.  Some of those authors include Richard Foster, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado, Phillip Yancey, Leslie Newbigin, Thomas Merton, Detrich Bonhoeffer, and few others.

One recent book I have read that is having a lasting impact is “The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives” by Peter Scazzero with Warren Bird and Foreword by Leighton Ford (Zondervan, 2003).  The whole premise of the book is to propose a restructuring of the way discipleship is done in the local church.  It takes you on a spiritual journey with pastor Scazzero as he discovers what was missing in his own spiritual formation and how he led his church into what he discovered every Christian needs to grow and mature.

While the book is written for Christian leaders, most specifically pastors, it addresses issues that affect everyone in the local congregation.  The church that I attend, Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington, just went through it church-wide in its small groups.  Many people benefited from the study and found some of the truths discussed in the book transforming.  The issues discussed throughout the book are universal and apply to every walk of life so that they could be applied in the corporate world or individual lives who are looking to grow and mature as persons beyond where they are presently.

The emotional part of our humanness is rarely dealt with in our society.  Most of us were taught to “stuff it” and hide our emotions.  Peter Scazzero points out how this has had an ill affect upon all of us and especially upon spiritual formation with the church.  The tendency is to think that if we are having troubles that what we need to do is apply the right doctrine or spiritual truth; or put more effort into a spiritual disciple like prayer, fasting, worship, prayer in the Spirit or Bible reading; or search our hearts and souls for hidden sins and unforgiveness; or look intently in the Bible for a Scriptural promise that will give us hope.  While all of these are good things they are not always the answer.  There may be deeper issues that we need to address.

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The author then takes his readers on a journey of considering the hidden emotional components of our lives that may be interfering with our growth as spiritual and emotional beings.  He suggests five steps that he devotes a chapter to each.  They are, briefly,

  1. Look Beneath the Surface.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches take the time to look inside their hearts and ask, “What is going on that Jesus Christ is trying to change?”  The author uses the picture of an iceberg to portray how a person’s life show’s very little of what is really going on upon the surface.  The vast majority of who we are lies deep beneath the surface.  So, the first step is to invite God to bring an awareness of what those “beneath-the surface” issues are and transform them so that we will become more like Jesus.
  2. Break the Power of the Past.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches recognize how their past – individually and collectively – affects their present ability to love Christ and love others.  There are complex ties to the past and the present.  All of these pull at us and shape us.  For instance, the family we grew up in is our primary and most powerful system that shapes and influences us – for good or for bad.  Recognizing what those and who those are and dealing with them so their negative power over us is broken is important to moving on and growing up.
  3. Live in Brokenness and Vulnerability.  Contrary to our societal model that teaches us to “lead from your strengths,” Peter Scazzero asserts that the Jesus model is to live and lead out of brokenness and vulnerability.  Emotionally healthy people and churches understand that leadership in the Kingdom of God is from the bottom up – a place of service.  It is the ability to lead out of failure and pain, question and struggles, and letting go of the need to control that empowers individuals and churches to grow and mature.  By far, I found this chapter the most challenging and, at the same time, the most freeing.
  4. Receive the Gift of Limits.  This truth directly coincides with the previous one.  Emotionally healthy individuals and their churches accept the limits God has given them.  Whatever and however many talents they have been given by God – one, two, five, or ten – they joyfully accept them.  This sets them free from the frenzy of a covetous life of trying to be like someone else or another church.  Such individuals and churches are marked by a contentment and joy about how God has made them and purposes to use them in his Kingdom.
  5. Embrace Grieving and Loss.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches embrace grief as part of the journey to become more like Jesus.  There is an important discipleship component in learning to grieve our losses – dreams, relationship, tragedy, death – because it is the only path to becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Covering over our losses only disfigures us and stunts our growth toward becoming whole and healthy individuals.  It shapes all of our future relationships and the way we lead others.  We are often too quick to try and ease the pain when God is attempting to use it to shape our souls.
  6. Make Incarnation Your Model for Loving Well.  This simply means intentionally following the lifestyle of Jesus.  Peter Scazzero asserts that there are three dynamics to Jesus’ model for us: entering another’s world, holding on to your self, and hanging between two worlds.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches will learn how to fold all three of these dynamics into their lives.  God changes us as we engage others and learn through them.  This keeps our feet in the real world spiritually.

As with all life-transforming books, when I put them down I always ask, “Where was this 20 years ago?” I could have used this book a long time ago!  I look back over the years and see how I have frustrated my own growth as a person – spiritually and emotionally.  I am thankful for it now.  Although I finished reading it some months back, I find myself constantly going back to it and “chewing” on some of the points that have really impacted me.

Like many formational books of its kind, it rubs against the contemporary approach to success and wealth and health.  I doubt that you will hear Oprah Winfrey or Doctor Phil using this book in any of their approaches to life.  Nevertheless, there are life-changing truths that can shape our lives and spiritual journeys from here until the end.  It will affect not only us but our world.  As Richard Foster notes, “…the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (Celebration of Discipline).  True that.  And so perhaps it is time some of us consider restructuring how we do spiritual formation.  I know I am in.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Engaging A World

This is the time of year when many churches, at least Assemblies of God churches, hold an annual business meeting.  It is an annual report to the members of the congregation from the pastor(s), deacon board, and church leaders.  The previous year’s and next year’s budget is reviewed and approved.  Reports on church events and happening from ministry leaders are received.  Everyone, especially, anticipates the senior pastor’s report on the congregation, which relates the advances of he previous year and the hopeful future of the next.

As a senior pastor, leading these meetings could be a challenge.  Coming to a new congregation, it was always curious to me how these events were misused and abused by church leaders and congregants alike.  I always determined to set a different tone and expectations for these meetings.  In twenty-plus years of being involved in them, I never had a bad annual business meeting (Thank the Lord!).

I have heard stories of meetings that were contentious and troublesome.  Decisions came to depend on “pre-business meeting” politics.  Leaders railroaded there agendas through the decision making process.  Congregants ended up in yelling matches with the churches leaders or one another.  Most churches I stepped into at one level or another violated their own Constitution & Bylaws in moving the meeting’s date, electing officers, approving (or disapproving) pastoral continuance, along with a number of other things.

It is no wonder that so many people today are soured toward the church as an institution, denomination, or organization.  Many of us cannot even run a business meeting in “decency and order”.  I am not surprised that many people attending church today refuse to become members of their church because of their bad experiences.  There reason is always, “I don’t want to get involved in church politics.”  And who can blame them.

There are many reasons for a church to slide into such petty and meaningless schemes and unhealthy relationships.  However, let me focus on one that I believe may be the biggest reason.  It is simply this:  A church body that has slid so low in its relationships has done so because it is unengaged in the Kingdom of God and its mission.  It has become self-focused.  It has turned inward to war against itself rather than war against the kingdom of darkness that surrounds it.  James, the brother of Jesus, in his New Testament letter warned the church that this will only lead the church to “devour one another.”

This brings us back to a church’s annual business meeting.  How it is run and what its focus becomes can be a symptom of a larger problem.  I have sat through too many business meetings as a parishioner where the most important things talked about was the next church maintenance project, the selection of a color for furniture, the proper setting for the temperature in the sanctuary, and what kinds of foods should be served at the “Fellowship Hour”.

Other than the building, everyone was satisfied to know that the number of “butts and bucks” coming into the church was relatively unchanged or slightly improved.  A small decline in those numbers did not warrant alarm since the church experienced those before.  An alarm was only set off only if there was a mass exodus of those “butts and bucks”.  Only then did the pastor need to start to sweat the security of his job.

If these things are the only focus of an annual business meeting, the days are numbered for a congregation.  It will not be long before inward focus upon personal comforts and preferences become the main talking points in every gathering.  The church has lost its focus and reason for being.  Jesus did not say, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not spoil its convenience and comfort.”  No.  He said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  The church is made to be engaged in warfare.

I propose that any church’s annual business meeting or congregational meeting should focused on two simple things:  First, reporting what God has done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His people and through His Church the previous year.  And, second, projecting what the church leadership team – pastor(s), deacons, ministry leaders – prayerfully believes God wants done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His Church the next year.  Admittedly, those are tougher things to report and project!

The focus will necessarily be upon how the church was engaged in its mission to the world.  No reports from its leaders will be sufficient that just lists events and activities.  Keeping busy for the Lord is not an indication of fulfilling the church’s mission.  Activities do not equate to Kingdom engagement!  Money collections do not indicate Kingdom involvement!  It requires a congregation and its leaders to ask the hard questions:

  • How many of us were engaged with our time, treasure and talents in God’s mission in the world?
  • How many who were unengaged in God’s mission the previous year became engaged in it this last year?
  • How many were trained for a specific mission in God’s Kingdom to be obedient to carry out the task He has called them to do for Him?
  • How many of those in our community who were unengaged with the Kingdom of God before this last year became engaged with the Kingdom of God through our church’s efforts or the efforts of an individual from our church?
  • How many of those outside our church did we engage with the Kingdom of God – locally, nationally or internationally?
  • In what specific ways did our church or individuals from our church engage our larger local community with the Kingdom of God through acts of service – feed the hungry, cloth the naked, care for the orphan, care for the widow, look after those in prison, stand against injustice?
  • What persons in our community are unengaged with the gospel that we can reach out to by serving them and sharing God’s love in order to engage them with the Kingdom of God?

These questions – and there are others that could be asked along these lines – help us to celebrate what God is doing in and through the Body of Christ.  They keep everyone’s eyes upon the most important mission of a church – glorifying God by lifting up His Son, Jesus Christ.  It helps everyone to realize that there are more important things than color coordination, room temperatures, and choices between desserts or salads.  The important task of sharing God’s love is never done.  Yet, when it is done in faith and obedience it should be celebrated.  That becomes the reason for holding an annual meeting in the first place.

The church exists to engage the world with the Kingdom of God by sharing His story and revealing His glory.  We cannot do that if we are focused only upon “butts, bucks, and buildings.”  We will reach for what we measure.  If we measure success in terms of personal comfort and convenience, then that is what we will always reach for first.  However, if we measure in terms of personal and corporate engagement of the Kingdom of God with the world, then that is what we will always try to attain.  So, who wants to give the next annual report?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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