The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 3: Church Finances

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE. In the first blog post I talked about how challenging it is to be a church today. In the second blog post I talked about how hard it is to know what to change and what to keep the same in the church. Now I look at the challenge of church finances.

Church finances are one of the big challenges in many churches today. Or, at least, it is one of the most felt challenges today. Church buildings are looking very worn because there is not a lot of extra money to keep them up well. More mainline churches are cutting staff and moving to part-time ministry. Churches that used to have financial reserves are looking in the bank at empty accounts.


Why is my church struggling financially? There are lots of reasons. There are less people than the church used to have. People have more debt and therefore less “disposable” income. Many of those who were big givers are on fixed income in retirement, paying medical bills, or supporting kids and grandkids.

It is also important to note the radical increase in nonprofit agencies that are also vying for charitable contributions. This includes hospitals (like St. Jude’s), relief organizations (like Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse), colleges and seminaries, and environmental and animal causes (like the Humane Society). These organizations depend on giving to support their work and are highly motivated and skilled at getting donations.

The church needs to understand that we have let a lot of these other agencies begin because we have not done our job of caring for the poor and the disenfranchised. We have let the government do part of that work, too. So people support these other non-profits and pay taxes for things the church should be engaged in. I am not hating on or disapproving of these organizations. I am simply trying to explain that this has an impact on church giving.

The church, on the other hand, is not very good at talking about money. I have done a previous blog about why people make choices to give charitably. We avoid talking about money. It has become, like sex, appropriate to talk about anywhere but the church. Compare that to Jesus, who talks about money all the time and makes it a part of many of his parables. We preach it timidly on stewardship Sunday or ask for it when we need more.

The church has also had a poor relationship with money. We have tended to live on our reserves and find our hope and security in our money. Reserves are a good thing. They allow a church to respond to emergencies and to have time to make decisions. Unfortunately, they also allow churches to take time and avoid dealing with issues that really need dealt with.

Many churches have lived off their reserves. They have not learned how to be a smaller church and live within their means, and they have instead try to continue to live in “the good old days.” I am seeing a number of churches that are now running out of reserves and are being forced to have very scary conversation. Many of these conversations should have happened years ago. In god we trust

The answers to such a complicated problem are not likely to be simple. Here are a few ideas to start.

  • We definitely need to better define and attack our mission in the world.
  • We need to talk about money in a healthy way—as spiritual significant and not just for keeping the lights on.
  • We need to teach our church people how to look at and relate to money personally.
  • We need to learn to be small churches. That means having less staff and more volunteers, simplifying our buildings, and becoming nimbler as churches.
  • We have got to put our hope in Jesus and trust Him to sustain and provide for our ministry.

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 2: How Much to Change

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE.

In a previous blog post I talked about how challenging it is to be a church today. Now I continue to talk about one of the most challenging parts of being a church today.

I think it is challenging to balance how much to change and how much to stay the same. We are a church based in tradition and history. We are God’s people and live a very old story. At the same time, the church has always changed to fit its culture, the way the church is spoken in the language of the place where it exists. German churches speak German and Spanish churches speak Spanish. So to churches in Western culture in the year 2016 need to speak like a Western church in 2016.

Many mainline churches face the same obstacle. While the world around them has changed dramatically, the church has been the one place that has stayed the same. It is the one anchor in many of our lives. Our world has changed. Our kids have moved away. Our parents are gone. Our work has closed down. But at least our church is the same. It is our safe haven. The last bastion of hope and stability in our radically changing world.

SwingThis is why when a church makes some changes they are sometimes met with overly emotional responses. People are responding to more than the change in carpet or the paint color. They are responding to all the other changes in their lives. If you change the music in the church, you are changing one of the things that has helped them cope with the changes in other areas of their lives. You stir up feelings not only about the music, you also stir up feelings of anxiety and grief about all those other changes.

Pastors and church boards are sometimes blindsided by these reactions, but they are understandable and should be expected. But the church cannot stay the same. We are a church of multiple generations. That means that people have different personalities, preferences, and needs. We are a church for all those people. A church that still looks like it did in the 1950’s and 1960’s is simply not being faithful to God’s call and plan.

We have probably felt this tension the most in music. Some people only want to do hymns on the organ. Some people want more praise music and a band. Sometimes we blend those styles so that nobody is totally happy.

But this is one of the big questions for the church—how much should we change and how much should we stay the same? Some people are fighting to change nothing in the church. Others are arguing for a total rethinking of what have been call the essentials of the faith. What do we need to hold on to tightly and what do we need to let go in the church moving forward?

The church has always had the tensions of looking forward and looking back. The early church debated the issues of circumcision and dietary laws. The reformers debated the mass and theologies like confession, communion, and indulgences.

Len Sweet says that the church needs to be like a kid on a swing. We need to kick our feet both into the future and into the past if we are going to keep the ride going. That is not always easy to negotiate, but we are working in that tension.

The Loss of Phyllis Tickle

On September 22, 2015, Phyllis Tickle passed away. Phyllis was a great lady and an important person for Christians today. She studied a lot of what is going on in the faith today and she was a very important figure in developing Christian publishing. Phyllis Tickle has had a big impact on my thinking. I even got to meet here once and found her to be a very kind and wonderful lady. I think she influenced me in 3 very big ways.Phyllis Tickle

First, Phyllis Tickle taught me the value of structured prayers and particularly praying the Psalms. Other traditions from Abraham pray throughout the day. Muslims and Jews both stop multiple times a day to pray. Many Christians, however, do not realize is that the early Christians also did this. It may be surprising, but the idea of stopping at fixed hours to pray throughout the day a found a number of times throughout the Bible. (See Ps 119:164, 55:17; Dan 6:10; Acts 3:1; Acts 10:9)

The early church continued and developed the hours. It was used extensively as the church developed monasteries. They continued throughout the Middle Ages. But at the Reformation they were lost except in certain traditions such as the Episcopal tradition. These prayers have been around a long time and, until recently, seem to have been a regular part of the Christian faith.

These prayers are called many things—fixed hour prayers, the daily office, the divine hours, the liturgy of hours. Phyllis Tickle wrote the most accessible version that I have found called The Divine Hours. Here version follows the annual calendar and are very ecumenical and easy to use. A couple times a year I still go back to those books to give my faith some structure and consistency.

A few years ago I wrote Divine Hours with my dad for our churches to try during Advent. (Download it Here). This is actually how I got in touch with Phyllis. I emailed her my work and she was complimentary of my efforts. A couple of months later I got to meet her at the Festival of Homiletics.

Beside the Divine Hours, Phyllis taught me the value of studying what is currently going on in Christianity. She saw that new expressions of church and faith were emerging. Phyllis tried to study this movement and report on how it was working. What are the questions that are being asked? Where are the challenges? Where is there new life springing forth? I believe that here books The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity will go down as critical works for the church in the next 20 years. The first is an overview of what is happening. The second is like a field report for this new faith that is emerging.

The final thing I learned from Phillis is an extension of her analysis of the current emergence. When she wrote about what was happening she wrote with a historical perspective. She taught me Tickle to not just look at the present or future of the church but to look through the lens of the past. Her large point was that about every 500 years human culture goes through a major upheaval where the worldview and structure of nearly everything changes. Think about the Enlightenment and the Reformation 500 years ago. When you look back, you can see consistent elements of each of these “turnings.” For instance, every time these periods come up new forms of religion form and old forms are adapted. They are always accompanied by changes in technology. Also, they are always accompanied with questions of authority.

phyllis tickle 2The specifics of her analysis are not near as important as the fundamental basis for her thinking—that we should look backwards as we look forward.

It is very sad to lose Phyllis Tickle. She joins a list of important Christian leaders who have died in recent years—Brennan Manning, Chuck Colson, Dallas Willard, Robert Schuller, Lyle Schaller, Fred Craddock, and Gardner Taylor. These are all people who not everyone will agree with, but they were important contributors to the faith. I wonder who will step up and be the leaders of tomorrow’s church?

I conclude with one of my favorite verses to use at funerals:

[13] And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13 ESV)

Rest, Phyllis Tickle. Thank-you for your labors.


Links and Resources:
Phyllis Tickle’s Website
Phyllis Tickle’s Tribute from the New York Times
Phyllis Tickle’s Tribute from the Huffington Post
Phyllis Tickle’s Tribute from Religion News

Phyllis Tickle Lectures on The Great Emergence at Pittsburgh Seminary in 2012-
Part 1-
Part 2- 
Part 3-

Here is a great little movie on Youtube about Phyllis’ life:

Click the books below to see my favorite of Phyllis’ work:


The Struggle for Contentment in Ministry

I got into ministry hoping to do something great for God. I was going to change lives, shape communities, and see people in large numbers become super-Christians. I took a small church while in seminary to give me experience and to support my family. I was never going to stay there. I had gifts and abilities that made me a good prospect for larger churches.

But then God did a funny thing (as God often does, I have found). God called me to stay at that church. I assumed that God had big things in store for this church. But then another funny thing happened—God has not done huge things there. He has done a lot and it has been cool to see. Still, it moves a little slow for me. I even started a doctor of ministry to burn off some access energy.

I am not complaining. I love it where I am and feel truly called there. What I am reflecting on is this drive that I have for bigger and better. Pastors are in a weird place. We are called to love our people where they are while we are helping to shepherd them to where they could or should be. God may call us to larger churches, but God also might call us to stay where we are. We get into this vocation to do great things and then we end up doing a little of boring and ordinary things.

I think too many pastors are working for their next church or striving for the church that their current church could be. What we really should be doing is being faithful in the little things where we are. We all struggle to be content in ministry. Mountaintop moments of success are far apart and far too quick when they happen.

I wonder if we, like the Old Testament prophets, are called to embody and experience what we are prophesying. Maybe we are like Hosea marrying an unfaithful woman living out God being cheated on. Or maybe we are like Jeremiah laying on a stone to represent sin.

Pastors, more than anyone else, live in the tension of “now and not yet.” This is the theological understanding that God’s kingdom is paid for and has come and yet is not here in the potency and power that it someday will have. We live deep in the current conditions of our world and our people and at the same time we proclaim and work for a world that has not yet come. Our sermons are preached from this tension. Our counselling is done in this tension.

So maybe this struggle of ambition vs. contentment and of what is vs. what could be is not something to be feared. Maybe it should be expected. Maybe it is normal. Maybe it is part of the call.


Learning Followership

I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of reading a book or blog or listening to a talk or sermon and thinking—“This is the conclusion to something I have been thinking about for a while.” It is almost as if the authors knew what you were thinking and were able to take it to its end and flesh it out for you. The teacher of my Doctor of Ministry Program Len Sweet has an uncanny knack for both writing and assigning books that do this to me.

Most recently I had this experience with the book Leadership is Half the Story: A Fresh Look at Followership, Leadership, and Collaboration. In it, the business authors write about the need for us to look at teaching not just leadership but also followership. We have not taught people how to be good followers. If everyone is a leader then there is no teamwork, no partnership, or no collaboration. There are only individuals.

At the same time that we have not developed followership the world has increasing demanded it. More work is being done in teams. These teams require a growing amount of collaboration as individual members of the team have unique contributions to projects. This is even more challenging when the team has to function over distance.

I loved how the authors talk about leadership and followership. They say that leaders set the frame of the work. They are responsible to set up the goals, constraints, and timelines for the work. The follower do the work within that frame. I loved this because I think this is a great way to frame leadership. Leaders don’t control all of the work but actually help those they are leading to do the work. This also emphasizes the importance of good followers.

How many bosses really help their employees do their work? How many employees really work to help their bosses get their goals accomplished?

I think the idea of followership is especially important for Christians. As Len Sweet discussed in his book Summoned to Lead, Christians are first and foremost followers. Central to our identity and work is the reality that we are followers of Christ. Sometimes God summons us to the front of a group of followers, but we are always still following Jesus. How are we doing at following?

The Essentialism of Nonessentials

I just finished the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeon. This books really got me thinking. The book is about stripping away what is less important in your life and pouring yourself into what is most important or where you can have the biggest impact. It talks a lot about prioritizing, learning to say “no” to things that are less important, and how to be radically disciplined about how you spend your time and energy. It also challenged me to get rid of some clutter in my life.

I think this is an important lesson for people to get. As a Christian I think this is especially important because God has plans and purposes for us in our lives. It is a shame when people cannot say yes to God’s will because they didn’t say no to credit cards or poor life choices. I think it is sad for the Kingdom of God to miss our on our contributions because we are unorganized and undisciplined. Remember Jesus challenging Martha because her sister had made a better choice?

This book was very thought provoking for me. I both recommend it and think I will go back and reread some chapters.

At the same time, I think there is an important caveat to this discussion for Christians. Sometimes in God’s Kingdom the nonessential things is the most essential things. I know as a pastor that some interruptions are just interruptions and some interruptions are the most important thing I can be doing. How many times did Jesus not do the most essential thing and instead go to places where he would have random conversation or escape for prayer when he could have been building his congregation?

For Christians, the most essential thing is to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. Sometimes that means we need structure and discipline. Sometimes that means looking for God in the distractions.

New Metrics for the Church

The church has measured itself for years on “nickels and noses.” What is your attendance and how big is your budget? These are not great indicators of church health. I know big and wealthy churches that are not very faithful to the Gospel. I know small and struggling churches that are very faithful to the Gospel.

This got me thinking: if finances and attendance are not good indicators of church health, then what metrics can we use? These are very unscientific and need to be evaluated alongside of the usual metrics. Here are some questions that a church can use to think through their effectiveness.

  • How have individual congregants show spiritual growth in the last year?
  • When someone in the church gets sick or is in the hospital, how many church members respond with visits or cards?
  • How many meals did your church share together last year and how deep was the conversation at those meals?
  • Can you tell a story that exemplifies the essence of God’s call for your ministry from the last 6 months?
  • How many non-Christians did you interact with last year?
  • How is your community better because your church is in it?
  • How many church members have shared a meal with their neighbors this summer?
  • If someone asked a person in the community that does not go to your church where it was and what it was like, what response would they get?
  • How many things did your church try and fail at in the last year? How can you try things so that you fail more in the coming year?

My Love/Hate Relationship with Numbers in Ministry

Yesterday I posted about my struggle with wanting my ministry to be bigger. Why do we feel that kind of pressure in the church? Why do we want to be successful? Why do we define success so much in terms of size of congregation and bank accounts?

Why do we do this in our personal lives as well? If someone asks how I am doing in life I would refer to the health of my family and then move quickly to the prestige and financial stability of my work. Why is my identity so quickly wrapped up in what I do and what I make?

Why can’t we judge ourselves based on the quality of our relationships or the generosity that we live with? Why can’t we evaluate our lives or our churches based on the impact we have on the world around us?

In many cases there are real-world reasons why we get caught in a game of numbers. Numbers are not without significance. Numbers can give us a realistic understanding of what is happening. We can fool ourselves into believing things are better than they are when we consider how we feel about something like worship or ministry. But if we have actual numbers it can force us to face the truth.

Numbers can also be critical in some circumstances. In my own context we are working to support full-time ministry by covering some of our operating expenses with reserves. These reserves are not unlimited. If we do not grow enough to cover our expenses then we will have to cut expenses and in our case it means going to a part-time or shared pastor. The pressure to grow is real and is time-sensitive.

The Bible is not opposed to numbers. At Pentecost around 3,000 people were added to their numbers. Somebody thought it was important enough to count. We even have an entire book called Numbers where Moses spends a lot of time counting and organizing the Israelites.

We want more people in our churches not just because we want to be successful but also because we want people to meet and live for Jesus. We want money in the plates not just so that we can pay our bills but also so we can do more ministry and be involved in more missions.

I have a love/hate relationship with numbers in ministry. We need them and I track them pretty closely. But they are not everything. The challenge is that they often become everything.

How do we do ministry and live life sensitive to the metrics but not obsessed with them?

Small is OK

Last week was Vacation Bible School and my church. It was a great time. If I could brag on my church for a moment, we do an awesome VBS. It is well put together and fun. We are decorated to the max and we do everything we can to make it a special week. The kids that come have a fantastic time and their parents are so grateful.

I am always a little frustrated, however, that more kids don’t come. We have about 20-25 kids a night. Now I realize that a lot of churches are not even doing VBS anymore and few have the large numbers of 20 years ago. Still, it is frustrating sometimes.

Sunday morning can be the same thing for me. I see lots of space in the pews and I can think of many people that need to be there. I try to “bring the heat” every Sunday but it gets frustrating sometimes.

As I was thinking about the numbers at VBS I was also studying for a sermon on several of the kingdom parables of Matthew 13. One of them says:

 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32 ESV)

God’s Kingdom starts small and grows slowly. Why, then, do I want larger numbers of “nickels and noses.” I hope that I want them because I want to touch more people with the gospel, but I fear that sometimes it is my own pride and ambition that really drives my desire for bigger.

But what if the very nature of Kingdom is that it is small?

5 Things Spurgeon Taught Me about Pastoral Depression

I admit it. I am tired right now. Not just tired. I am a little bit down and depressed. I don’t have a lot of energy. I am a bit grumpy or at least closed off. I am not normally like this. I am normally a pretty upbeat and positive guy. I just find that sometimes in ministry I don’t feel 100%.

When this first happened in ministry I fought it. After all, I was doing God’s work and God would sustain me, wouldn’t He? But the down-ness came back every once in a while.

At some point during one of these times I picked up the book Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon. Lecture 6 titled “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” has been a constant companion for me in ministry ever since. In that book, Spurgeon taught me 5 really important things about pastoral depression.

1. Down times are normal. Spurgeon says, “The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience.” Pastors are people and nobody is excited all the time. But the work of ministry also offers unique demands and stresses. I find it very comforting to know that what I am going through is normal.

2. Down times come for different reasons. Spurgeon covers a number of them. Ministers faint because of physical ailments. The weight of the work makes us carry ourselves with more importance and our position lends itself to resistance and conflict. The ministry can also create bad sedentary habits. We also often feel like fainting before and after times of great success, when we are working without a break, or when troubles pile up. Sometimes people also betray or wound you.

3. Sometimes down times come for no reason. This one bothers me. What I would like to do is figure out the cause and fix it. Sometimes, however, no direct cause is there to be found. When this happens, Spurgeon says “it is all the more difficult to drive it away.” In my own language, it just has to be patiently waited out.

4. Down times do not mean you are unfit for ministry or failing.  The first couple of times I got down and depressed in ministry, I got worried that maybe I was not cut out for the work or was doing something wrong. Sometimes I do need to pace myself better. Ministry is more of a marathon than a spring. Still, feeling down does not mean your are failing. Spurgeon says, “Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness.”

5. God uses down times. This is where Spurgeon seems almost off his rocker. He insists that these ‘fainting fits’ are actually helpful.

“Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise amid overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saints. Live by the day—ay, by the hour. Put no trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. Trust in God alone, and lean not on the reeds of human help.”

In fact, Spurgeon thinks we should praise God for down times:

“Glory be to God for the furnace, the hammer, and the file. Heaven shall be all the fuller of bliss because we have been filled with anguish here below, and earth shall be better tilled because of our training in the school of adversity.”

For Spurgeon, God blesses us with adversity and depression so that we will trust God and not ourselves, we will live by faith and not by feelings, and so that we can be sensitive to experiencing adversity as we care for others.

How have you dealt physically and spiritually with depression in your life?

Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore your Church Building

I am a firm believer that our lives our like stories. We tend to embody the story that we see ourselves in. In other words, we tend to dress, live in homes, and drive cars that fit our story about ourselves. We see this in people who are really depressed. Often they do not take care of themselves. They are disheveled and unkempt. They don’t shower as much or pick up after themselves. As people get healthy and come out of depression they tend to physically look healthier.Church Front

Our appearance not only reflects how we feel but it can also change how we feel. If we are feeling down, we can dress up. Or if we need to relax we can put on comfortable clothes. If people want to get in shape they often go out and buy athletic clothing. This is not only important for exercise, it also helps us play the part we are wanting to play in the story of us being physically fit.

When I look at many of our church buildings, I see that they perfectly reflect how many churches feel. The buildings look depressed and broken down. They often smell funny and have firmly established cobwebs and decade old dust piles. There is junk piled not just in every closet but in every corner and on every shelf. The front of the sanctuary is so cluttered that it shouts out—“We are disorganized and random.”

The effect for fancy churches can be just as troubling. These churches can tell the story that we think we are important and we care a lot about people’s opinion. The resulting insight is that only people who are wealthy and clean can come here.

You may not realize or think about the story your building is telling, but your visitors will. So it is time to get intentional about your buildings.

  1. Your building can give you clues about how your congregation feels about itself. Try to look around your church property and ask what story your building is telling. This might give you insights into where your church is struggling. Is the nursery dirty? Are offices neglected? Or is everything in need of help?
  2. Your building can help teach people to care about visitors (or not). I am a firm believer that the church exists primarily for the people that are not there. Your building can get in the way of that, or you can use the building to help create that value. Ask your people to start thinking about the building from the perspective of someone who does not already go there. This can help people be aware of the world.
  3. Your building can help change how people feel about themselves. Just like dressing up can make you feel better, changing your property can make your church feel different. Can you clean things up? Paint? Add some banners to plain walls? Any little thing can built momentum for your church.
  4. Your building can improve (or hurt) your ministry. For example, well over half of communication is non-verbal. Clutter communicates that we are disorganized, unclean, and unprofessional. If you declutter the front of your sanctuary your music and preaching will probably sound better and be well received just because people can and will pay more attention. Also, do you have a social hall that an outside organization or ministry would want to meet in? Could improving your meeting space help create partnerships in your community?

One other areas that I see churches hurt themselves in the area of temperature. Many churches, to save money, try to use the temperature controls as little as possible. That means that the church is freezing cold in the winter and roasting hot in the summer. This is a mistake. It tells the story that your church is cheap and unwelcoming. It may save you some money immediately, but it also costs you money. What people will end up doing is avoiding coming to church when it is too hot or too cold. When people miss church, they often do not make up their giving later. That means that you are costing yourself attendance and giving in order to save a few bucks. Turn your heat up in the winter. Put in window air conditioners or good fans in the summer. Tell the story that you care about the people more than the dollars. It will pay off for you.

In the last year at my church we have done a lot of little things to make our building look better. A new roof and a new boiler was costly, but most of the other things we did cost little to no money. We added banners, had some cleaning days, got rid of a lot of stuff, added window air conditioners, and did some painting. I have been surprised how much these little things have impacted the feel of our church. What might you be able to try?

10 Tips for Keeping Sabbath in 2015 (SABBATH PT 5)

rest hereIn my previous blogs about the Sabbath I have argued that we really need the Sabbath today. I also said that the Sabbath cannot just be a bunch of rules but needs to be based on grace.

I am not sure that it is feasible to do Sabbath the same way that ancient Israel did. If you can then great, but I don’t think that way of doing Sabbath works in 2015. So, here are 10 tips to think about for doing Sabbath in 2015:

  1. Schedule it. Whatever your Sabbath habit, it will not happen if it is not on the calendar. Put God in first and schedule the rest of your life around that date.
  2. Sabbath does not have to be Sunday. I am a pastor which means that for me Sabbath is not just A workday but it is THE workday. I have to rest at other times. Our culture does not treat Sunday as a special day anymore so many people have to work on Sunday. Find other times to rest.
  3. Piece Sabbath together. I have 4 kids so I almost never get at 24 hour period of Sabbath. I have actually found that it fits me better to piece together my Sabbath throughout the week. There is something special about longer periods of rest, but sometimes resting a little every day is just as important.
  4. Don’t half-way Sabbath. It may not be Sunday and it may not be a 24 hour period, but a Sabbath must be focused on rest. You cannot rest and kind-of work. If you are working then you are not resting. Put the work away. Otherwise you are not effectively working or resting.
  5. Write down what you have to do. I find it easier to really rest and stop worrying about work when I have a good list of what I have to get done. I also find that when I Sabbath I start remembering things I have to do. I Sabbath with a piece of paper handy so I can capture those and then not worry about them. This lets my mind relax.
  6. Try different activities. Sabbath is a time of resting and refreshing. You have to experiment to find what activities (or lack of activities) does that for you. Sometimes you need fed spiritually. Sometimes you need sleep. Sometimes you need a distraction. Take a nap, play a game, go for a run, watch a movie… Your Sabbath may look different at different times. Try different things and see what works.
  7. Have a deadline. One of the secrets to Sabbath is the deadline. If you have a clear time that your Sabbath begins then you can get motivated to get housework and work-work done by that time so you can fully rest. I don’t know about you, but I always work hardest right before going on vacation. I don’t want to have to worry about things or be working on things while I am away. If you have that kind of weekly deadline for Sabbath it will help both your productivity and your rest.
  8. Think Sunset to Sunset. We tend to think of the day starting in the morning, but I think that the old way of thinking about the day starting the night before is helpful. If you only have a morning of Sabbath on a certain day then start your Sabbath at sunset the night before. It will add to your rest.
  9. Cook meals ahead. Cooking (especially in big families) can be a lot of work. Put a meal in the crockpot or prep a casserole the day before so that you can easily share meals together on your Sabbath. This particularly helps mom to Sabbath.
  10. Live a life of Sabbath. We tend to see Sabbath as a break from the important things of our lives, but that is not Sabbath. Sabbath is the recognition that God is the most important thing. Live the other 6 days of the week with a focus on the Sabbath. It can change your life.

Sabbath and the 10 Commandments (SABBATH PT 3)

So far in these blogs about Sabbath I have made the case that Sabbath is a symbol of commitment between God and God’s people (a wedding ring) and that Sabbath is a sign of resistance to the world’s view of people and life. But it is more than just a symbol and it is more than just resistance. Sabbath is also a major tool that God uses to help us love our God and love our neighbor.


Consider the place and role of the Sabbath in the 10 commandments in Exodus 20. There are 3 commandments about God—no other Gods, no idols, and no taking the Lord’s name in vain. There are 6 commandments about neighbor—honor father and mother, don’t murder, no adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness against neighbor or lie, and don’t covet.

Sabbath sits in the list right between these 2 sets. It is by far the longest commandment and it is the hinge between the two sets. Sabbath is how we start to take our relationship with God and live it out. It is the mechanism God uses to help us live out our faith with our neighbors.

But how does Sabbath help us love God and love neighbor?

  1. Sabbath keeps us connected to God. In Psalm 46:10 God tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.” How can we stay connected with God if we are never still? We need to Sabbath so that we can stay connected with God. Otherwise our lives will tend to crowd God out.
  2. Sabbath keeps us aware of our neighbors. If we are busy few tend to lose sight of others. I don’t even see my neighbors when I am rushing to get somewhere. Sabbath gives us space to notice the needs around us.
  3. Sabbath helps us to not stop coveting. Coveting is last commandment for a reason. It is often coveting that leads to the other sins listed, and it is Sabbath that helps us to deal with it. When we are satisfied, we can trust God and there is no need to harm others. We need the Sabbath to help us stay connected to God so that we do not covet.
  4. Sabbath keeps us rested and at our best. Have you ever noticed that if you are really tired or really stressed you tend to have a shorter fuse? Sabbath gives us rest so that we have the ability to choose our emotional responses to situations instead of just reacting to life.

Do you have trouble trusting God? Do you have trouble having empathy for others? My first question for you is—what is your Sabbath habit like?

Sabbath as Resistance (SABBATH PT 2)

In my last post I suggested that Sabbath is very important to God because it is a sign of the covenant—like a wedding ring. But it is more than that. It is also a way that God gets our perspective in the right place.

The Israelites had been in slaver for 200 years. In Egypt, the Israelites were commodities. They were the sum of what they accomplished. They were the sum of the bricks they made. In fact, they were more like bricks to be used by the Egyptians then they were people. They were a product to be used.

This is the only economy that those living had ever known. No one was living that personally knew life outside of slavery. They lived their entire lives in the economy of Egypt.

You can imagine how dehumanizing this could be, not only for individuals but for the community. Commodity leads to anxiety because you don’t have neighbors to care for. You can only have threats and competitors. Some in the system got to be on the top while others got to be worked to death by those on the top.

God’s economy is different. God rested on the 7th day not because God was not tired, but he was setting an example, because he is more than what he created. It has been said that it took God 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but 40 years to get Egypt out of them. Sabbath is one of God’s main ways of helping Israel with that.

Ultimately, Sabbath is resistance. It is resistance to the world of commodity. Sabbath says that God is not Pharaoh. God does not keep demanding more and better.

Sabbath is a system of rest to contradict a system of anxiety. You are not a thing. You are not the sum of the work you do. You don’t have to be so stressed. You can trust in God to take care of you..

You are more than what you product, you are more than what you, you are more than what people think of you. You are more than your job.

  • You do not have to do more, know more, sell more, control more…
  • You do not have to have your kids in all these different sports…
  • You don’t have to have a job that makes you work 65 hours a week…
  • You don’t have to be younger, more beautiful, or more financially stable…
  • You don’t have to drive a better car than your next door neighbor…
  • You don’t have to get ahead at work at the expense of someone else….
  • You don’t have to kill yourself following everybody’s rules and expectations….

Sabbath is resistance to the economy of commodity. If you do not have a Sabbath habit then you are probably getting consumed by the Egypt mentality, because that is where our world is. What economy do you want to live in?

Join the Resistance!!


This is the second in a blog series on Sabbath. For deeper reading, I recommend Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann. Some of this blog post was directly inspired from that work. 



People often want to grow. They want to be better or different. At least they say that they do. I want to lose 20 pounds…until I have to pass up a piece of cake or get up early in the morning and run. I want to be closer to God…until I have to read a boring piece of scripture or God answers my prayer in a way that I don’t want.

So often we create beliefs and habits that keep us the same. We start to believe that we have always been the way we are or were meant to be the way we are. We do little things so we can feel that we are making some progress but really we are avoiding the big changes we need.


Henri Nouwen reflects at our hesitancy to change and grow. He said: “Do you really want to be converted? Are you willing to be transformed? Or do you keep clutching your old ways of life with one hand while with the other you beg people to help you change?” (The Inner Voice of Love pg 6) Nouwen points out that no longer do we hold back when we have to change, but we often ask others to help even as we are still hanging on to staying the same.

Churches can be like this too. Every church says that they want to grow but they are not always willing to pay the price for change. We want visitors until we have to give up time talking to our friends. We want people to come and give money until they also want to give opinions. We want new leaders until they feel led to change our worship or our building.

So in our churches we also create beliefs and habits to stay the same. Most of these we do not even realize. We don’t realize how unwelcoming we really are. We don’t understand how using particular church language makes outsiders feel like outsiders. We don’t see how we subtly reward things that keep us the same or put down things that would push us to grow.

What is the way out? A few immediate things come to mind. Pray for God’s help and direction. Get perspective of someone outside of your life or church that can show you your blind spots. Be honest and don’t try to explain it away. Above all 2 things are necessary for growth when it is wanted and unwanted at the same time. First, you have to trust that God has you where He wants you to be and is working for your benefit. Second, you have to have the courage to march right into the heart of the struggle and relentlessly wrestle with it.

Change and growth are messy. There is a reason that we resist them. My encouragement to you: wade into the messiness because you will find God there in a special way.

Leading with Story Pt 3: Story Leadership (or Why I Call Myself a Minister of Story and Sacrament)

This is Part 3 of a blog series developing the idea of Leading with Story in churches.

I have previously developed the problem of confused roles or identifying metaphors for pastors. I have also expressed the importance and power of stories. Now I want to move into the idea of leading with story.

tell me your story
Every person, family, or organization is in the middle of a story. Actually, they are in the middle of multiple stories. We have different areas of our lives with their own stories. We have different parts of the organization or family that have their own stories. These areas are filled with people with their own mix of personal stories that they are living out. We carry our own perspectives and memories of the stories that often differ from others who were supposedly part of the same story. This intricate web of stories are sometimes in unison, sometimes in contrast, and always in flux.

Great leaders lead by shaping and crafting the story of their organization. They use particular language to make the story compelling and use challenges as conflict that pushes the story forward. They are constantly working to shape the story of the organization to its staff (management) and its customers (marketing). They are crafting a compelling story in which everyone wants to play a part. In fact, there is a growing field of narrative leadership or storytelling in business. Companies now have positions in storytelling.

In Christian leadership there is a larger story. This is the story of God, the Greatest Story ever Told, or “the old, old story.” It can also be understood, as my teacher Len Sweet puts it, as “the greatest story never told.” God’s story tells us a lot of things about who we are and who are churches should be. It stands in contrasts to many of the stories that this world tells.

As my friend Graham Standish points out, many churches are living with writers block. They need new stories. In a lot of cases they need to go back and retell the old stories and “the old, old story” to get the current story back on track. It is as if many churches have forgotten or incorrectly remembered the previous chapters of the story they are in. They also need to start intentionally shaping the next few chapters. They need to find new roles in bigger and better stories that will compel the church forward.

I am talking about much more than narrative preaching here. I am wondering what it looks like to see story has the key paradigm and the dominant building block of ministry. I have begun to think of myself as a Story Pastor. Instead of using the classic description of “Ministry of Word and Sacrament,” I have begun to call myself a “Minister of Story and Sacrament.”The_Historian_(The_How_and_Why_Library)

The Story Pastor does his or her work with story as the clay. We begin to shape better stories for our congregations. We counsel people in their stories. We find out the story of our communities. We craft the next chapter of our congregation’s stories. We reenact God’s story every week in worship. We weave multiple stories together and help write better stories. We teach our people to share their stories as testimony for the others.

What do you think about the image of The Story Pastor? How is a Christian leader like a storyteller?

The Presbyterians of Beer

There is always as much reaction to Super Bowl commercials as there is to the game itself. I read an excellent article that you can find HERE on why the commercials were more stories and less humor this year. I, however, want to reflect on a Budweiser commercial.

First, a little context is needed if you are not much of a beer drinker. There are big changes going on in the beer world right now. The industry is dominated by a few companies. You know their names because they are the ones who can afford things like Super Bowl commercials. These are called macro-breweries. They are amazing at mass-producing very consistently average beer. They are huge businesses and fit the corporate America model. However, they are losing percentage points of the industry every year to craft beer. These are normally more flavorful beers that come from small breweries called micro-breweries. These beers are known for lots of complex and unique flavors and smells. They seem to be especially popular among young beer drinkers. These beers are more expensive because they are not mass-produced.

In response to this dynamic, Budweiser put the following commercial in the Super Bowl:



When you understand the context, it is easy to see how bad and confusing this commercial. I recommend THIS EXCELLENT ARTICLE by Paste Magazine by Jim Vorel for a fuller treatment of the issues. Here are a couple of highlights:

  • Budweiser tries to use the term “macro” as a good thing even though the word is really a critique of their work. They are trying to re-sign a bad image but may only be admitting to this negative designation.
  • They make fun of beer drinkers that want to be “fussed over.” They are making fun of young hipster drinkers that have a curled mustache or drink beer samples at a brew-pub.
  • Budweiser, immediately after making fun of beer aficionados makes a claim that would only appeal to this kind of beer drinker. The average Budweiser drinker probably does not know or care that it is aged on “beechwood aged since 1876.”
  • They state that their beer is for drinking and not dissecting. They are saying that their beer is not supposed to be smelled or tasted. Is their beer only for getting drunk?
  • They make fun of pumpkin peach ale while just a few weeks ago they bought a small brewery that makes pumpkin peach ale. They are taking shots at their own companies. Not only are they buying up craft breweries but they also keep their own test brewery.
  • How can they claim that mass-production is the hard way to brew when small breweries are so much more hands on?

Here is the reality: the average Budweiser drinker is in their 50’s. The future of Budweiser is in serious jeopardy if they cannot find a way to appeal to younger drinkers. What they don’t seem to understand is that appeal to tradition is not going to make that happen.

I have bad news for Budweiser. This strategy marks the beginning of the end. I should know. I am an expert on this kind of failing strategy. You see, I am a pastor in a mainline denomination called the Presbyterian Church (USA) and we and other denominations have been trying these strategies for years. We have appealed to our tradition. We have talked about ourselves as the true church. We have critiqued and made fun of new movements like church plants, independent churches, and Pentecostal movements. At the same time, our average customer age has been going up. In response, we have spent money on studies and consultants to help us understand these same new movements, young people, and churchless adults that we have put off for years. We have hung our hats on tradition over quality. We have appealed to loyalty over quality of taste. We have reinforced our corporate hierarchy at the expense of local church health.

The long term sustainability of denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA) are seriously in question right now. Unfortunately, with this commercial Budweiser has become “the Presbyterians of Beer” and that is not a good thing. It has not worked well for mainline Christian denominations, and I doubt it will work well for Budweiser either.

The reality of life is that we all must adapt or die. If we adapt a little, we may survive for a while but we will never thrive. It is not going to work to poke fun at the way things are changing while at the same time appealing to those you are poking fun at to join you. The only way to move forward is to have the courage to face reality and respond. Alternatively, you can die. What will be the fate of Budweiser? What will be the fate of Christian churches and denominations?

The Art of Caring without Caring

For Advent I have been reading Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent by Richard Rohr.  It is has been really helpful for me, but a paragraph from the book yesterday really got to me:

“Can we care intensely and passionately and not care at all in the same moment?  If we are seeking God’s will and not our own, it comes somewhat easily.  We do the best we can, but we are detached from any need for personal success or response.  We can then care and not care in the same moment.  That is true spiritual freedom.”  (pg 48)

Rohr says this comes “somewhat easily.”  It does not for me.  I want to be responsible for the work and responsible for the results.  This especially hits me as the pressure of the holidays builds.  I want to have good sermons, engaging worship, and a welcoming demeanor because I want to have my best foot and the church’s best foot forward for guests at Christmastime.  This is also the end of the year and we are looking closely at where our finances are going to end up for the year.  How do you care about something so much that you put your all into it and at the same time give your trust to God for the results?  I think this is very hard to do, but I think Rohr is right.  There is great freedom in finding that balance.