To the Preacher

November 14, 2019

In my preaching journey I have made numerous mistakes, but I have also learned a few things though along the way. Call it growth or survival, but I have managed by God’s generous grace to make it so far. I would encourage anyone who has the giftedness and passion to pursue a life of ministry. The church needs to continue to develop and produce solid preachers.

If preaching is your call; if serving God and his people through ministry is your passion–God bless you! We can use you, but please give all diligence to make sure your life and approach to preaching is healthy. Some of the best advice I ever received was simple and biblical–just continue to read the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) and allow the Holy Spirit to guide and speak to you through these letters. They contain sound, divine instruction for the preacher of God.

In addition here are a few things I have discovered as essential for healthy ministry. I have at times failed in all of these. That is one reason why I share–maybe you can avoid my mistakes:

  • Preach Christ first and foremost. The Corinthian church had assorted and competing agendas at work within it. The apostle Paul’s solution was to focus primarily on the cross and simply “preach Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). We will never go wrong following that example. Lifting up Christ in our ministry and preaching will create the kind of atmosphere in which churches will be healthy, will grow, and will represent the kind of kingdom community God desires. Preachers should avoid the snares of other agendas–they can be divisive and counterproductive to the work of God and the church. We all need to make sure our preaching is anchored in Jesus as we speak truth in love.
  • Don’t Bash the Church. All too often I hear a negative focus when it concerns the church–even from among the ranks of preachers. Sure we have all been there–our church is not where we think it should be; we are frustrated by lack of passion, growth and involvement; maybe the church has even hurt us, but bashing the Bride of Christ accomplishes nothing constructive. Certainly we are to–as Scripture teaches–reprove, rebuke, exhort, but nowhere on this list is to tear down and harm. Just because our church is not exactly what we want it to be, there is no reason to attack it and those in it. God sees his church–even with all of our faults–as radiant. So should we. I get that we all need to vent–preaching is fascinatingly frustrating, but guard against the kind of bitterness which can lead to tearing down instead of building up. God detests that (see Proverbs 6:16-19).
  • Love the Brotherhood. This is a biblical mandate (1 Peter 2:17). It speaks of the broader love for God’s people everywhere–not just those in your church. Once I asked a brother preacher about another congregation in his city. He replied in what I considered to be a demeaning tone, “We are not like them.” I understood. His church had a more progressive outlook. He considered the other congregation too restrictive and old school, but aren’t we all saved by the grace of God? Shouldn’t we love the entire brotherhood of believers and lift up one another in Christ? Too often I sense a spirit of competition between churches and even between preachers. As Paul taught the Corinthians, we are all “of Christ” (See I Corinthians 3:23). We may not always agree on all things but in love we should do our best to accept each other in Jesus (Romans 15:7). This should be the kind of welcoming, healthy spirit we desire in our churches.
  • Do not disqualify yourself (I Corinthians 9:27). Paul spoke in this text about personal integrity–about living the lifestyle to back up the calling. While we do not claim perfection, own up to mistakes, and rejoice in the grace of God, we as preachers must be careful to “watch our life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). All kinds of minefields exist to undermine our credibility as ministers of the gospel. From sexual sins to being irresponsible with words, money and time–we must be on guard. Lazy preparation and preaching is never a good look. We must be alert to allowing some unhealthy agenda to overtake us. It is true that on occasion we may be unfairly held to a higher standard than the rest of the church, but to a degree it does come with the calling. Perhaps this is why Scripture says it is not for everyone (James 3:1).
  • Be Patient. One of the very most difficult challenges in ministry for me personally. I want it done yesterday, but the church simply does not operate like that–and usually for the best. Impatience in ministry can do damage to people and churches. So we have to learn how to operate in our church setting to implement ideas, build consensus, seek input and council, inform and share while bringing folks along with us. That takes work and time, of course, but it is well worth it. Typically the outcome is far better than imagined. Learn to be longsuffering and your ministry will be strengthened as a result.
  • Don’t Grow Stagnant. Just like in other professions–there are peaks and valleys in preaching. Our challenge is to never tarry too long in the valley. We must strive to stay fresh in our spirit; in our preparation; and in our outlook. Make sure to make time to read, to consider the scholarship of others; to find places of encouragement. We cannot preach from an empty well.
  • Be magnanimous (see Philippians 4:5)*. Ministry and conflict; ministry and disappointment; ministry and failure; ministry and hurt all do happen together. It is just a given that in ministry, you will take some lumps–sometimes fairly and sometimes not. All of us in ministry know preachers who have been unjustly treated and have a few stories of our own. However the natural way to react to these is not usually the best way. Rather we should learn to be magnanimous–to forgive and, at least from our perspective, do our best within those situations to be led by the spirit of Christ. It is always better to be generous with God’s grace than to be vindictive, return hurt for hurt or to allow bitterness to take root. Being magnanimous gives God the glory and defines our ministry as being led by him.

I love preaching and preachers! To us all I say–don’t lose heart while we do our best to “discharge all the duties” of our ministry.

I will conclude with a text from 1 Timothy that I referenced earlier. I think it is a fitting way to conclude:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (4:15-16)

May God bless our ministry for him.

 

 

*Thanks to Cecil May III for helping me see this text in a better way.

 

 


Meet The Preacher

November 6, 2019

You may know us, but then again you may not. Preachers have a way of hiding behind the pulpit. We can easily be stereotyped. Through experience we often learn to become very guarded and protective of our hearts and homes. Paradoxically though we often feel obligated to give even more of ourselves into our ministry. We come in all shapes, sizes and giftedness–and you may be surprised to learn:

  • The church is our life. For better or worse it is difficult for this not to be true. We pour all of ourselves into our ministry in the church. Preaching is not simply a vocation–it is essentially our identity. As a result the church becomes our life. We become consumed with its health and growth. Remember that old joke about preachers only working four hours a week? We may force a smile as it is told, but trust me we are not laughing. Actually–honestly most of us would consider it condescending. This is also why we tend to take it personally when someone leaves our church. We process it as a rejection of us and our ministry efforts within the church. No, that is not a healthy approach or necessarily an accurate assessment, but one almost impossible to avoid. This also explains the tortured look on your preacher’s face when he hears that you decided to go to the lake/ball game/whatever rather than attend the big, special, highly promoted Sunday at church. He has spent weeks planning that Sunday. Hours spent in prayer. His hope is that Sunday will spark a spiritual renewal in someone. It is a huge deal to him and for it to be so easily dismissed by others is disappointing. I am not saying it is fair to hold everyone to our expectations–just explaining who we are. The best way I can describe how the church becomes our life is a quote attributed to Cecil May, Jr. (as told by his son Cecil III). Someone once commented to Cecil, Jr., “I wish I had a job that I never had to clock into.” Cecil, Jr. replied, “I wish I had a job I could clock out of.” I do not make this point as either complaint or as some outstanding virtue–only as informative. To understand your preacher, understand that the church is his life (his family certainly knows it).
  • We are an insecure bunch. This is a layered discussion. The first layer is within us. I think God calls some of the most naturally insecure folks to preach. It could be his way of demonstrating his strength within our weak vessels (see 2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, we have a job in which it is difficult to quantify results. We work with volunteers with varying commitment levels–some of whom occasionally find it necessary to remind us of our insecurities. We wonder regularly if our preaching is connecting and effective. Then there is the church layer. Most churches encourage and support their preachers well, but some don’t. Almost every preacher I know has a horror story or three about mistreatment by good brothers and sisters. Financially, churches as-a-whole do better than previous generations. Yet the overwhelming majority of preachers continue to not have the benefits that those hiring them take for granted–health insurance, retirement, etc. All of this breeds insecurity. I was once told (by someone not a preacher) that this is the way it is supposed to be; that preachers are supposed to live off the gospel. While I do not disagree that we are to walk by faith, I am not sure how an atmosphere of insecurity is helpful or healthy for any preacher or any church.
  • We may resist close friendships. I mentioned that we are good at hiding behind pulpits, which can be challenging in making long-term, close connections. There are reasons behind this, of course. First we fight against stereotyping. Often people have fairly strong preconceptions about preachers–making various assumptions about us because we preach. Once at a church workday, a church member expressed surprise that I could use a hammer. Such stereotyping can prevent folks from ever getting beyond that in order to develop a deeper relationship outside of the church walls. Another factor here is betrayal–having trusted someone with intimate information or personal challenges only to have that information shared and even used against us. It does happen. Preachers can be extremely vulnerable within certain church settings. There is no such thing as tenure (part of the overall insecurities) and especially if a preacher has been burned, it can be a challenge to be open to close friendships within the congregation. This is not always the case, of course, but there is a reason that for many preachers–their best friends are other preachers. So if you have ever wondered why your preacher may resist developing a deeper friendship with you–it likely has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with some past unpleasant experience.
  • We can be our own worst enemies. I like to say that preachers are people too. We deal with the same temptations, tendencies, and trepidations as everyone else. We make mistakes–plenty of them. Ego can get in our way and we can lose perspective along with the ability to listen to sound advice. We can hurt and betray others. We can develop bitterness and cynicism. Our preaching can become imbalanced with agendas other than “Christ and him crucified” creeping in. All of this is on us and we have to be vigilant in protecting ourselves against such. Most of us understand this and strive to not disqualify ourselves (see 1 Corinthians 9:27) or our ministry through harmful behavior and lazy preaching. It is also a matter of maturity. Just like others in their professions, we learn as we grow with sometimes-painful lessons being the best schoolteacher. Looking back in my ministry I have been my own worst enemy on numerous occasions, which makes me even more overwhelmingly grateful for good churches and godly elders who were more than patient with me.

The Bible describes the feet of those who proclaim God’s message as “beautiful” (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15). I am not sure how many of us who preach see ourselves that way. We get the thought, but we also live with ourselves and are more than acquainted with our failures and weaknesses. But we would not have it any other way. Preaching–well that is just who we are.


The Learning Curve

October 31, 2019

In the previous post I referred to the ministry learning curve as frustratingly fascinating. I think that description nails it. Fascination and frustration seem to partner up frequently in ministry.

I entered full-time ministry with a great deal of idealism (which I have never completely shaken). I possessed noble ideas about how as Christians we would all be united in passion and purpose; together in commitment and dedication; that the church would always be striving to be better, to grow, and mature; and if we simply followed Scripture that this would be the happy outcome. Couple that with the fact that I was also convinced that I possessed the answers on how to make this happen and as you can guess, my idealism quickly collided with realism. So began the learning curve.

And so I present some of the twists in the curve I have discovered:

  • I gotta be me. As a young preacher I had my preaching heroes. After hearing these brothers fire me up at workshops, meetings, and lectureships–I would return to my church with my best impersonations. Then I waited for the expected tremendous response–and usually got crickets. How I wanted to be those guys in those keynote moments enthusiastically charging up the masses! Except it just never happened quite like that. Eventually I learned to simply be me–to allow God to use my personality and giftedness–not me attempting to channel someone else. I think it has worked out okay so far. I have never keynoted the masses at a nation-wide event (once I was told that I needed to “specialize” in something other than local preaching–write a book–in order to catapult myself into well-known keynote status), but God has rewarded me richly with wonderful relationships with several churches–that accepted me for me.
  • Change happens slowly. This, for me, falls under the frustrating category–even now as I realize its merits (well usually anyway). I recall once storming out of a men’s meeting overwhelmed with impatience. The topic was building maintenance, no one was making a decision, and I had world-altering evangelistic plans to propose! As I dramatically exited I think I uttered something like, “You will have the best building in town, but no one in it!” (Talk about grace. Somehow I kept my job.) So while it will always be my personality to move quickly, most churches cannot and remain healthy. Rash, quick, forced change generally brings trouble and often explosive division–which is usually counterproductive to the kingdom. Healthy churches do change, but over time– an evolution rather than a revolution–all being led and guided by the Holy Spirit of God. Realizing this I have had to make sure that my agenda as the preacher is also shaped by God’s will and fits squarely into the personality and goals of the church I serve–while at the same time encouraging the church not to settle for status quo but rather to continue to mature and grow. Often it is not an easy balance, especially with my impatient personality, but typically it is for the best. The church is like a big ship. It does not turn on a dime, but it does turn. The challenge is to make sure the changes bring health and growth for the church and glory to God.
  • Everyone will not always be happy. Yea, I figured this one out fairly quickly. Folks have been unhappy with me for years! At one point my sermons were too targeted to youth; then before I knew it my sermons were not reaching the younger generation. I have been called “liberal;” was criticized for teaching too much on love; and was once told I was making things up–that what I preached was not in the Bible (even as I turned to the text in question). I have seen unhappiness with elders; with song selection for worship; with youth ministers; with how much time I spend (or do not spend) in the office; with the color of paint; with how to use the church budget; with Bible class topic selection; once even over the type of car I purchased; and with–well the list could literally be exhaustive. And unhappy people leave–feeling frustrated, betrayed, hurt, angry and letdown. (Note–almost all preachers take it personally when someone leaves the church. It is a reflexive reaction–even if it has been handled corectly and even if needed to happen for the sake of those leaving–it always stings. If you cannot understand that check out my next post in which I will try to open the window into what it is like being a preacher). Some of my worst and most personally painful ministry experiences have been people unhappy. With all of my heart I wish this could be different. My idealism kicks in still and I wonder why we can’t work through our unhappiness together as iron sharpening iron to emerge even better and stronger? I don’t like this twist in the learning curve, but it is there.
  • God blesses sincere effort. In my preaching ministry I have always tried to be sincere, if not smart. And looking back I realized God blessed that. It really is the only way to explain my journey. Usually calling an idea presented by an elder, “the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” would not go very well or engender good relationship, but God protected me through that due to his grace living within that eldership. Almost always living out the nightmare of a divorce would not be something a church would endure with their preacher, but the Skyway Hills church in Pearl, MS did–and saved my life in more ways then one. Then later another church, Gateway in Pensacola, FL, was the first to invite this divorced preacher in after another church rejected me, stating, “we cannot see a divorced man in this role.” And now God has blessed me to be a part of this wonderful family at Levy. The only way I can explain it is: I have just tried to do my best through it all–my own immaturity; frustrations; brashness; ignorance; sin; arrogance; insecurities; divorce; hurt; stubbornness; weakness; ego and pride–to sincerely share a message from the Lord. And I have been blessed beyond measure by God and his marvelous people.

After all these years I remain firmly on the learning curve–perhaps a bit further down it for sure. But it still can be frustratingly fascinating and I’ll be the first to admit that I have even more to learn. I am just thankful that God and his people have not given up on me yet!


Why Preaching?

October 28, 2019

This is the first in a series of articles in which I will consider the work of preaching and what it means to be a preacher based upon my own life and experiences. 

Occasionally someone will ask me why I am a preacher. Sometimes I am not sure if the question comes from a genuine desire to know and understand what makes me tick or from a “of all things, why in the world would you choose preaching?” point-of-view.

The question does typically make me reflect however. It takes me back years ago to Greenville, MS to a young man floundering with no direction, meeting Christ and doing what just seemed natural in the moment. Once I became a Christian, preaching to me, was the obvious next step. Prior to that it would have never even remotely occured to me, but then Christ happened which upended everything. The preacher at the South Main Church of Christ encouraged me to consider it and as it happens, a new nearby “preacher” school, Magnolia Bible College, was beginning its second year of operation. So I dove in with what little giftedness and knowledge I had and never really looked back.

I never looked back even though many where offering the “you-will-need-something-else-to-fall-back-on” advice (Thankfully I have not heard that in recent memory. I suppose after I reached a certain age, others thought it futile to suggest it). I did not hesitate even as my classwork became increasingly difficult. I never faltered even when my ten pages of notes only produced a seven-minute sermon on my first sad attempt in Belzoni, MS during my freshmen year. I never reconsidered even after a good brother called MBC’s board chairman to encourage him to discourage me from preaching because “he will never make a preacher.”

I just thought preaching was what I was supposed to do. I would have never been mistaken for a visionary. I did not gaze that far down the road; never contemplated earning potential or career arc; never had any kind of existential moment about it. I was honestly convinced this was God’s call for my life and that I could somehow make a kingdom difference by answering that call.

Some would say I was naïve and they would be right. I was blissfully unaware of the inner workings of congregations; of the stubbornness of entrenched traditions, customs and patterns within churches; of how to work within a church culture to get things accomplished; of the fact that good church folk would actually oppose my ideas; of how people would forever treat me slightly differently; of both the disappointments and blessings involved. I was simply ignorant of many aspects of being a “located” preacher. I just wanted to preach!

And preach I did–all throughout the state of Mississippi as the visiting young preacher boy. What a wonderful experience that was! Almost always I was met with support, encouragement and enthusiasm among the churches. It turned out to be a terrific incubator for my desire to preach and only fueled my passion even more.

I finally took that desire full-time to an unsuspecting little church in Delhi, LA who were desperate enough to offer me and my freshly minted B.A. in Bible the chance. I was passionate, brash, self-convinced, and at times unrelenting while simultaneously being undisciplined, nervous, unsure and insecure. Things took off and then they didn’t–and I began the long, slow, adventursome learning curve that I remain on even now–decades later.

But I still have not looked back (maybe even when it would have been easier to do so); I still love preaching and still have that desire to try to make a difference. The learning curve? It has been frustratingly fascinating produing both incredible joys and heartbreaking pain. (Come back for more on that. I will pick that up in articles to follow.)

Why a preacher? Well not much has changed as for an answer. It still seems simple, even with floodwaters having passed under the bridge by now. For better or worse (and there is both, believe me, but you know that already!) I believe it is just who God made me to be.

 


Meet Will

June 7, 2017

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Serving as preaching intern this summer at Levy is Will Brannen. Will will be a junior at Harding University in Searcy, AR studying Bible and ministry. He is from Houston, TX. He and his family worship at the Bammel Church of Christ.

I have known Will since 2003 when my family and I moved to work with the Gateway congregation in Pensacola, FL. Will and his family were living there then.

Will has an amazing God story to share about his life. He had a heart transplant as an infant and is a two-time cancer survivor. He plans to tell us a little more about that soon at Levy.

In spending dedicated time with Will–studying text; talking ministry and preaching; visiting people–I am deeply impressed by Will’s desire to serve God, his genuineness and his maturity.

I am thankful that Will is with us for six weeks and I urge everyone at Levy to pray for him, encourage him and support him in his pursuit of a life of ministry.


FIVE PREACHER FAILS

October 26, 2016

I am intimately familiar with preacher fails. I have lived through a host of my own. Here are five common ones.

  • Lack of discipline. Usually the church world allows quite a bit of daily freedom for preachers to be about their ministry. This freedom can be easily taken advantage of—preachers staying at home and away—not being fully engaged in productive ministry. We preachers already put up with the “you only work three hours a week” barbs. Let’s not allow laziness and lack of discipline to give that any credence. Instead let’s fully “carry out the ministry God has given” us (2 Timothy 4:5 NLT).
  • Inattention to study. Lack of discipline can also lead to sloppy study habits, which in turn damages our ability to effectively speak truth in love. Don’t take shortcuts on sermon preparation. We should put the proper study time in—so that we can be both confident in our presentation and content; that we are in fact handling correctly the Word of God.
  • Inability to listen. I once was convinced that I pretty much had all of the answers and I was eager to share them! Failure on my part to appreciate and to listen to other’s council, to hear proper constructive criticism, to simply learn from wiser and more experienced people hurt my ministry at times. Let’s be quick to hear and slow to speak!
  • Complaining. Everyone needs a place to vent on occasion—the same is true for preachers, but be very careful not to be seen as a whiner or complainer. This can undermine ministry. I have participated in and heard my fair share of elder roasts, how-terrible-my-church-is conversations, and complaints about everything from salaries to worship style. If things need improving usually complaining or whining is not the catalyst to make it happen. Instead let’s try to do all things without complaining and grumbling (Philippians 2:14).
  • People Pleasing. We all desire affirmation—preachers are no exception. And as preachers we certainly want to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I may save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), but not to the point of compromising personal or biblical integrity. Ultimately we will give account of our life and ministry to God. We simply cannot allow a desire to please people set the agenda for our work. It can be harmful to us, to our families and to our ministry. There is a balance here that we all must find.

Preaching is one of the most noble and needed callings! Let’s do it with a passion for excellence. I praise God for good preachers!


Preacher-to-Preacher: Do’s & Don’ts

October 19, 2016

From one preacher to another I gently offer this advice for building stronger relationships within your church and with other preachers.

  • Don’t go all robo-preacher. A while back I was a guest at a church. I was acquainted with the preacher, but had not talked with him recently. So I asked the “how are you” question—genuinely wanting to know how he personally was doing. I got back what I call the “robo-preacher” answer. His church was doing incredible and was growing. They had recently added more leadership and renovated their facility. He was in more demand than ever as a guest speaker at other churches and conferences. God was good! Well, okay. Glad to hear it, but that was not the question I asked. Being a preacher I recognize the tendency we have to attach our value to the good things God is doing through our ministry and those around us, but perhaps this information does not always need to be in the foreground and we need to engage others in a different way. Opportunities to share good news about our ministry will happen.
  • Don’t start posturing. In one city as a new preacher I arrived late (had to find the place) at a graveside funeral service. It was raining. As I made my way to join the crowd a man kindly shared his umbrella with me. After introductions I discovered he was a fellow-preacher in town but at a church that I soon found out that was suspicious of mine. His entire demeanor changed and he began to posture over certain biblical theological positions. Later when encountering this brother, he would barely acknowledge me. I have never understood this. Even if we disagree why this treatment? Wouldn’t it be healthier and more productive to engage each other as brothers and perhaps even enjoy open dialogue about different viewpoints?
  • Do Reply. Maybe this just happens to me (or maybe all of this just happens to me—I could be the common denominator creating all of these situations! LOL) but often when I email and/or call other preachers I never get any reply. Nothing. Not even a “no thank you—not interested.” It is puzzling. I know everyone is busy, but try to reply. It is the gracious thing to do. Speaking of…
  • Do be gracious—to all and specifically toward other preachers. We are a brotherhood within one, you know. All preachers are not gifted the same. We all have made our mistakes (The reason I can write this post is because I recognize myself in it). Let’s be kind to each other even if and especially if—I go all robo-preacher on you or start posturing or whatever. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, encourage one another, and help each other grow in the gift of preaching. It is a gift God values highly.

I love the preaching life even with all of the insecurities and bumps along the way. The rewards far outweigh those temporary challenges. I also appreciate the work of my brothers in the pulpit. Let’s always strive to learn and grow as preachers and always try to be encouragers of each other to preach the Word!