Friday, August 21, 2009

Financial Attitude

Money is often a reflection of the "real me," and our checkbooks (personal and ecclesiastical) expose our hearts and priorities with an honesty and clarity that our words often lack. Jesus spoke often about money because He knows us well: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:21

Over the years, I've been blessed and helped by Dan Reiland's newsletter, the Pastor's Coach. I was personally challenged by this article on a church's financial attitude, and wanted to share it with you. Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:

"The attitude of the church's primary leadership toward money has a huge impact on how well funds come in and how wisely they are used. In my connections with many churches I have found at least seven distinctly different attitudes toward money. Churches may have more than one of these "attitude," but each church has one predominate "financial personality," or, as I have been saying, attitude."

Please click here to read the article.

(Note: I would have preferred to link to a source from the author, but Dan's publisher doesn't appear to provide an archive of issues. I have therefore put this issue on my personal web space, and include the required credits below it. )

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Care for the Stranger

It was Sunday, we were on vacation, and we hunted down a church to attend. I think it was a semi-rural area in Pennsylvania, but all I’m sure is that the church was fairly new and struggling to get started. It’s been at least 20 years, and I remember nothing about the service or the message. But two sad facts are chiseled on my heart.

One is that I didn’t matter.

The pastor enthusiastically greeted us in the parking lot, making small talk until asking the important question: “Where do you folks live?” I told the truth but gave the wrong answer- I didn’t live “just down the road,” or “over the hill,” but our home was “someplace not here.” We continued to talk, ostensibly as before, but my wife and I both knew we weren’t important to him any more.

New members are life and death to a small church, and a pastor’s heart dies a little when the numbers don’t grow. I’m ok with his disappointment. But it’s wrong that we (or any other “we’s” that might come) didn’t matter.

Which brings up the second sad fact: if we didn’t matter, he probably didn’t quite care unconditionally about the people who could stay.

That’s not to say he should treat all people the same. He’s going to invest in the locals far more than in me as a transient, and I totally applaud that. But I fear for the loss of the Good Samaritan heart, which did all that it could (and more) in a “chance” encounter on the highway. The Good Samaritan would probably never meet this man again, yet he engaged in full responsibility ministry for that brief point in time.

Virtually every church thinks it’s a friendly church, every pastor a friendly pastor (I’ve heard of studies to show this!). But friendly to who? The people we know? People like us? People attending with someone we know? What about the unconnected visitors? What about those we will never see again?

In some ways, “friendly” churches can be the worst. I visited five+ times at one church of 300 before having a meaningful conversation, and all the friendly chatter just heightened my isolation (yes, I stuck around after the service). At another church, I had two lonely attendance experiences AND an unanswered letter. When I sought out the pastor at a conference, he was genuinely bewildered as to how I could have such an experience in his friendly church.

As you can tell, this bugs me, even though by nature I hate greeting strangers. So I work at it.

Let me tell you about June, who had been to our services occasionally, although she more often participated in an activity. June’s attendance is sporadic, she's seemingly clueless, just seems different. We tried to reach out some, but there was no visible response, and our gut said this was going nowhere. So a couple of years later, June greets me in Wal-Mart. And I make small talk but it’s hard because June doesn’t do small talk and I’m running out of topics and this ministry opportunity feels kind of hopeless and I want to bail.

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
Matthew 7:1-5.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Learning When to be Outraged

My friend had his car inspected, and the estimate to pass was a shock. On second thought, they offered to cut the cost 15%, but he really should do it all now, and it’s such a good deal. You probably already guessed that: the brakes were fine, and a tuneup wasn’t required for the inspection. Somebody, perhaps desperate for business, thought they saw a sucker.

I should be outraged, but I’m not. You might think I’m jaded, but that’s not it either.

John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, is probably not authentic, but the message is hard to dismiss. While 10-11 still doesn’t ring true for me, v.7 and its predecessors describe exactly how my heart functions: I’m imperfect, and I drug my guilt with accusations towards others. “How could they do that?” and “I’d never do anything like that” are the caustic balm of self righteousness.

I cannot forget standing by a basketball court, not playing, waiting my turn, watching other boys dribble in front of me, thinking, “What if someone who wasn’t playing slapped the ball?” In years of play, I never saw anyone do it. But I did, impulsively, for no good reason. “It’s only basketball,” you say, but it symbolizes a lifetime of “doing it,” a total destruction of any credible protestation that “I would never do that.”

As I grow older, outrage has been replaced by understanding of my own culpability- I’m no better than any other miscreant. Perhaps I didn’t commit his outrageous act, but my “foibles” are a) every bit as enslaving b) just as bad in God’s sight. I am encouraged that perhaps self-righteousness is in a small decline.

But I have nagging questions, because I’m no longer sure God wants to eliminate all outrage in me. As I read Scripture, there are times to be outraged, even angry at injustice, because it affronts God’s holiness. I’m not sure yet how to do it, but God expects a paradoxical mixture of grace toward all AND outrage toward wrong. Come to think of it, He models this for me, and I am grateful.

John 8:1-11; Matthew 7:1-5; Eph 4:26a; Matt 21:12-13.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Preached Last Sunday

It’s something I know how to do, and am comfortable doing, but I only do perhaps 2-4 times a year. For what it’s worth, here are some “now that I’m a pastor” musings on preaching:
  • be sure you can read your Bible. The last time I preached, I discovered that recent vision changes precluded reading it at pulpit height. I interrupted the introduction to switch to one of our “pew” Bibles (we have chairs, but I’ve never heard of “chair Bibles”).

  • Don’t forget your notes. I have a good memory for them, but listeners are better off if I have them.

  • Hope the wireless microphone doesn’t wander. Unlike lapel mics which can be clipped to clothing, there’s no place to clip a “head mounted” microphone. (My nose is ideally located- the mic could hang down directly in front of the mouth. However, that would be visually distracting as well as probably uncomfortable) A marvel of optimistic design, it’s precariously perched over the ear, extending beside the mouth; hopefully someday a famous preacher experienced with these devices will enlighten me with their techniques for keeping it in place.

  • What do you do if nature calls? I recently heard some well known preachers describe what they did. I don’t know if that will be of future help to me or not.

  • Nothing in seminary taught me how to arrive a half hour late to teach a Sunday School class after oversleeping. I recommend setting 2 alarms (or 3) to avoid repeating before a sermon.

  • Visit the rest room BEFORE putting on the microphone. Even if it’s always turned off. This paranoia is good. (I’ve heard of this, and that’s as close as I want to get).

  • Somebody loves me whether I’m doing well or poorly. I’m grateful for the visually responsive listeners who encourage by their smiles and nods (and reminded I’m a poor listener and need to improve)
If you think I make too much fun, I suggest that God himself views preaching as one of His cosmic jokes at the expense of evil. Just as we enjoy the humor when a childish remark totally dumbfounds adults, so God “laughs” when his “weak things”, “the foolishness of preaching” “confounds the wise.” This isn’t justifying poor preparation or wrong heart; it rather recognizes that only He can make something of our deeply imperfect best efforts.

So how did I do? Not as well as I wish- I’ve got a list to work on for the next sermon and God expects me to grow. But I also did better than I know, because of His grace and the power of His Spirit. And I am humbled and encouraged.

Psalms 2:4; 1 Corinthians 1:21, 27.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Imperfect Church is for 'the Empty'

Our local newspaper publishes a weekly feature titled, "What I Believe." In this February 21 article, Church is for 'the Empty', Phil Huber eloquently reminds us that...

"The church is a clinic for wounded sinners; a place of healing for those who have burned bridges and broken trust, for those who have binged on pleasure and purged on guilt; for those who feel hopeless, weary, empty and beat down. For those like me."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Picturing an Imperfect Church

What picture does “imperfect” bring to mind? A church where anything goes? A church with realistic expectations? A church down on itself? That, of course, illustrates the problem with words. Communication get complicated when a word has different meanings to different people. So we’ll need to define it, or at least put up a “straw man/church” so we can all talk about the same imperfect church!

Imperfect implies mess, and most of us don’t like it (even if we’re chronically messy). We learn to live with it in our children, but we also spend years teaching small increments of intentionality and un-messiness. Is not the church like this, too? Because we want to avoid the mess we-
  • Hide the mess, often with a fa├žade of perfection
  • Get rid of messy people
  • Redefine what’s a mess
What drives our reaction to mess? In our children, sometimes it’s genuine desire to help them grow; sometimes their mess is in our way and we want our way. Sometimes we’re tired and don’t want to deal with it. Similarly, in the church, there are many possible drivers.

The first is pride, an inflated view of self, forgetting that in this life we’re terminally imperfect.

The second is that we value appearance over process, so we forget the principles of progressive sanctification. The progress of others (and ourselves) doesn’t meet our “standards,” so we too little celebrate growth and display grace. It’s tough balancing standards and grace, but teetering is no reason to give up.

The third is that we forget how secure we are in God’s love. No matter how painful, no imperfection or human criticism can do eternal damage to us. Because we are secure in God’s love, we can love our sisters and brothers who may feel like enemies.

There’s a fourth, and it is that our standards are too low. We are like the patient that insists an imperfect leg is “just fine” because she can still get around on it. Just as the patient must acknowledge infirmity in order to get medical help, so we also must acknowledge spiritual infirmity to get spiritual help. And if we don’t think we need help, we need to meditate on Romans 7 and Ephesians 4.

Imperfect church calls us not to imperfect (lower) standards, but to God’s perfect standard. “Imperfect” becomes a statement of fact, not an excuse. That in turn recognizes we’re all on a level playing field, none of us better than any other, with nothing we can fully hide. We are fellow spiritual patients needing tough love and continuous grace, the imperfect ministering to the imperfect.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Clinic or Spa: Imperfect Church is for Who?

There were three of us at the southern Ohio cemetery- my sister, myself, and a relative I'll call Ted. We just buried our father, and were talking with Ted, an outgoing retired truck driver who can make you feel important and then turn angry in a heartbeat. His life was a mess and he often talked about cleaning up so he could go to church.

Like other times, my sister and I urged Ted to attend church "just as he was." Go to God and let Him clean you up. But Ted wasn't buying. Was it rejection? ("We don't accept "sinners.") Was it faulty theology? ("God only takes good people, so I've got to clean myself up first.") Was it pride? ("I can do this myself.") Was it a reaction to church hypocrisy? ("Pretending to be good, but rotten inside.") Was it all of these?

Whether due to perception or packaging, it's hard to be imperfect in church. Do we treat the church as a spiritual clinic, or a spa? Is it a runway for models "stylin' and profilin', or a treatment room for patients laid bare and vulnerable? What does it mean that Jesus fraternized with sinners (Matthew 9:10,11), and Paul was explicit about his bad past and that of the Corinthian church (1 Timothy 1:15, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11)? How can the imperfect church and this imperfect pastor reach Ted?

11When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" 12On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
Matthew 9:11-13