• God’s Gift of Laughter


    One of God’s great gifts is laughter.  I have been having fun laughing about Pop and Pot, two Baptist churches and one of God’s saintly characters.

    1. We are having Rally Day this coming Sunday at the church where I am interim and our topic is Popcorn and Potential.  The point is that popcorn that is unpopped is not good to eat.  As Christians, we start off like popcorn that is unpopped but Sunday School helps us reach our potential.  When we started to advertise it, I suggested we shorten it and say, “Come to Rally Day for Pop and Pot.”  I figured we could set a record for attendance.  However, the pastor in me feared someone would get the wrong impression and I stopped myself.  But, now you know!
    2. I was in Newberry, SC, recently and saw a church van that said, “Old Beaver Dam Baptist Church.”  I would love to be a member there so that if anyone asked me where I went to church, I could say, “That Dam Baptist Church.”
    3. The other Baptist church where I could be a member is Three Rivers Baptist Church on Broad River Road in Irmo, SC.  If anyone asked me where I went to church, I would tell them that my church is next door to heaven.  The business next door is Hot Dog Heaven and the hot dogs are heavenly.  We go to heaven, often.
    4. Mrs. Bell Eargle died recently at the age of 99 years and exactly 10 months.  If I could be as active as Mrs. Bell, I wouldn’t mind living to that age.  Mrs. Bell was one of my favorite members over the years.  I lovingly described her as “one of God’s saintly characters.”  When I arrived as interim, she was 94 and told me that she really enjoyed “calling on all the old people.”  I later learned that all but one of the old people was younger than she was.  My favorite Mrs. Bell story happened when she was 95 and in charge of a funeral luncheon at the church.  Before the invocation, I asked Mrs. Bell if she had any instructions.  She told the people to go on both sides of the food table to get their food and then, motioning to the counter between the kitchen and fellowship hall, said “You are to come to the bar to get your drinks.”  I started giggling and was immediately joined by everyone there.   “Now, pastor,” she said, indignantly, “That is not what I meant and you know it.”

    Have a wonderful week and enjoy God’s gift of laughter!

  • You Do What You Have to Do!


    I recently learned about two of my relatives, Rev. J. H. Wesley Wertz, my great, great grandfather, and his son, Rev. Joseph Q. Wertz, my great uncle. Because my grandfather had been adopted before he was two when his mother died, he knew very little about either relative.  The key was finding an index to The Lutheran Visitor, a publication of the General Synod of the South from 1869 to 1904.

    One item that I did not expect was Rev. J. Q Wertz’s report in The Lutheran Visitor on January 31, 1884. “The parsonage (Pine Grove, Lone Star, SC, and Trinity, Elloree, SC) is in good condition with 145 acres of land attached.”  I read it a second time and it did say 145 acres of land.  So I checked with a local historian in Elloree whom I had recently met.  He told me “Of course, the pastors farmed back then.  That’s how they survived.”

    I started thinking.  I would have never made it–never, ever– as a pastor during that time when a mule had to be your best friend and constant plowing companion.

    I was sharing the story with a former seminary professor who laughed and said, “John, when you are a pastor, you do what you have to do.”

    I’m sure that my great, great grandfather and my great uncle did not think it was strange to be a pastor and a farmer.  They did what they had to do to proclaim the good news.

    I found the grave stone of Rev. J. H. W. Wertz in the cemetery at Pine Grove Lutheran Church and immediately thought about the passage from Hebrews speaking of the “great cloud of witnesses.”  I silently thanked God for the witness of Rev. Wesley Wertz and the other pastors down through the years who did what they had to do to proclaim the good news.

    The link to The Lutheran Visitor index is http://www.genealogytrails.com/scar/newspaper_index.htm

  • Everything I Know about Preaching I Learned from Robin Williams


    This blog was originally posted on Nov. 7, 2011.  Like many others, I was influenced by Robin Williams and mourn his passing.  I pray for comfort, peace and healing for his family and for all those dealing with depression.

    Ok – perhaps the title is a bit of an overstatement.  Most of what I learned about preaching came from listing to my father preach for years and from classes with Dr. Tom Ridenhour at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, but as I read a story in the October 2011 issue of Inc Magazine, I was reminded of the influence that Robin Williams and other comedians have had on my preaching.

    The article entitled, “Badabing, badaboom – Can doing stand-up help close the deal?” focused on a company that brings in a stand-up comedian named Clayton Fletcher to teach employees comedic technique as a way of making them better public speakers. “Fletcher runs through a list of rhetorical devices commonly used in stand-up routines.He explains how to establish a roll structure, or a succession of punch lines, and how to set up a reference to a previous joke, known as a callback.”The owner of the business says, “Many of the skills used in crafting a stand-up routine . . . are essential for winning over prospective clients.’If you’re a good comedian, you’re probably a good presenter.'”

    Now I don’t tell jokes when I preach, but like stand-up comedians, I tell stories, talk about life and make observations on society as a way of connecting my story, the congregation’s story, and God’s story revealed in scripture. When I started preaching, I remember watching Robin Williams doing stand-up and noticing how he would always reference something from the beginning of his act as he was finishing up.  At the time, I didn’t know he was doing a “callback”, but I recognized that it was a helpful way to highlight a point and I incorporated it into my preaching.  As I listened to observational comics, I got a sense for how to look at the ordinary events of life from a different perspective.  As I listened to storytelling comics, I got ideas for how to share an illustration in a way that draws the congregation into the story and while the content of my preaching has more to do with Tom Ridenour than with Robin Williams, the rhetorical devices used by stand-up comedians have definitely had a helpful influence on my sermon structure and delivery style.

  • Thanks, Virginia


    All first-call pastors should be fortunate enough to inherit a helpful member like Virginia Crawford.  I was called to a mission congregation where Virginia was the chair of the Education Committee and willing to competently help in any area she was needed.

    Now it has been over 40 years since I was a first call pastor, but I used something last week that Virginia taught me.  At our mission church, they had started a day camp instead of a Vacation Bible School.  The camp went from Wednesday to Wednesday with Saturday and Sunday off.  On that Saturday morning after the first three days of the day camp, our doorbell rang and I went to the door.  Virginia’s daughter, Kathy, was there with two long stem carnations–one for me and one for my wife–and a thank you note for helping the first three days.  I went out with Kathy to the car to thank Virginia and I remember her laughing and saying, “I am trying to encourage all our teachers to come back next week.”

    Last Friday when we finished the day camp at the congregation where I am interim, I stopped by the grocery store on the way to the church to pick up flowers.  The store had a special on long stem red roses so I purchased enough for the staff.  When I gave them out as I thanked everyone, I thought of Virginia.

    The staff  kept telling me how thoughtful I was so I shared the story of Virginia and how she encouraged the day camp teachers to return on Monday.  I told them the flower was their encouragement to come back next year.

    Thanks, Virginia, for teaching me a great lesson about gratitude.  Almost 43 years later, it’s still a wonderful way to express thanks.

  • 7 Simple Tips for Strengthening Stewardship in Congregations


    Have fun picking one of two of these simple tips to implement in the coming year, then have fun adding one of these practices in the following year.  Don’t try to put all seven in place tomorrow.  Don’t start with the one you think you should do.  Pick the one or two that you would have fun doing and start there.

    1. Send at least five giving statements per year – April/May, June/July, September, December and January.
    2. Say “Thank You!”  Put a thank you note in each giving statement.  Use pictures.  Tell a Story.  Connect financial gifts to ministry being accomplished, but keep it simple.
    3. Use the word “steward” or “stewardship”  in the Prayers of the People  each week in worship.  Use a simple phrase like “make us good stewards of the gifts you have given us”.
    4. Give up using the word “Budget” for Lent and forget to take it back.  Consistently using a phrase like “Spending Plan for Ministry” or “Investment in Ministry Plan” helps congregations make the connection between their financial gifts and the ministry being accomplished.
    5. Feel free to never ask anyone to “Pledge to the Budget” ever again.  Have fun asking people to support the ministry God is accomplishing in your congregation.  Ask people to “prayerfully estimate their giving to the ministry of the congregation for the coming year”.
    6. Preach on stewardship when the texts present themselves in the lectionary.  Don’t ask for money.  Don’t try to guilt people into giving.  Simply talk about our calling to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us.
    7. Say “Thank You!”  for all the ways that people share their gifts, not just for financial stewardship.  Each week, make five phone calls or write five handwritten thank you notes or send five personal emails saying “Thank you” to individuals in the congregation or community who have used their gifts to make ministry happen.  
  • How Do Pastors Become Accepted Into a Congregation


    I have been doing an informal survey over the past three weeks. There is absolutely nothing scientific about it, but I have gleaned some wonderful insights into the ways that pastors become accepted in the life of a congregation.

    My search began when I was talking with a longtime Lutheran. Their congregation has a new pastor and she noted that the new pastor was not “one of them.”  I asked her why her new pastor didn’t seem to fit in.  After discussing it for a while, she finally concluded that she did not know why the new pastor wasn’t “one of them,” but she absolutely knew that it was true.

    Since then, each time I have had the opportunity, I asked members of other congregations, “How did your pastor become ‘one of you?’” Several factors were mentioned by the people to whom I talked.

    • Our pastor really listened and seemed to want to get to know who we were.
    • Our pastor said that we needed to make some changes but she wanted to wait until she got to know us better.
    • Our pastor always said “we” when talking about the congregation rather than “you.”
    • Our pastor went to all the Sunday School classes, visited with the choir, attended the men’s and women’s meetings, and was there where we were.

    This week, I opened my Alban Weekly and found an article, “Why Lone Rangers Always Fail” by David Brubaker. He provided the last key to belonging in his initial paragraph.

    Leading a successful change process in a congregation, even a very traditional one, is possible. But to do so a leader must earn the right to make that change and partner with others to make it happen. Lone ranger leaders who ride into Dodge and transform an entire community exist only in the movies.  In the reality of congregational life, we need a patient posse.

    After finishing Brubaker’s article, I realized that the pastor who did not fit in may well be a ‘Lone Ranger’ because instead of investing the time to earn respect and build trust, she appears to be trying to ride in and change the community alone.   In time, even the Lone Ranger learned that he needed a companion in his journey and I hope that pastors will hear Brubaker’s advice and seek to build ‘patient posses’ so that together they can accomplish the ministry  God is calling them to do.

  • Skills Training vs. Education


    It appears to me that we are living in a time when the majority Christians (particularly new Christians) are more interested in “skills training” than “education”.   I think we are more interested in learning “how to be Christian” rather than “understanding what it means to be Christian” and developing a broad and deep understanding of God’s relationship to God’s people.

    If it is true that we live in a short-term, highly intensive sprinter culture, then it makes sense that we would be focused on immediate results.  Often, we only ask “Why?” when we have trouble with the “How to” or when we engage in something enough times that we want to understand it more completely or to improve.

    If this is true and if we accept the fact that our culture won’t return to a focus on education without a massive cultural shift, then this has major implications for how we teach confirmation, how we do faith formation in congregations and what entry points will be the most effective in connecting people to the mission of Jesus Christ.

    (*Thank you to Pastor Bill King at Luther Memorial, Blacksburg, VA for suggesting the skill training vs. education framework)

  • No “one size fits all approach” any more


    I became aware of the change in ways to visit members around 1980 when I visited Gordon at his place of employment rather than his home. I came by his office, he introduced me around and then we went the office cafeteria to east. Afterwards, I realized that meeting people at their place of employment had happened three times in less than a month. “That is different,” I remember thinking.

    At my last parish, I visited with small groups in the congregation when I arrived and after 45 days, I had visited with over 375 members of my new parish. That was some of the best and most helpful visitation I ever had in almost 40 years of parish ministry.

    Today, pastoral visitation continues to evolve, especially with the advent of social media. Last week, a wonderful older member of a Lutheran congregation was sharing with me the visitation methods of their new pastor. “She says that she visits almost exclusively on facebook but I don’t have a computer and I don’t want one. I feel completely left out.”

    That started me thinking. How does an effective pastor visit, today? I believe that shepherding visitation is more important than ever. An effective pastor needs to meet people where they are and not where her or she is. I learned years ago that great communication begins with thinking about the person receiving the communication and not the person sending it. That is still true today.

    Son John, better known as Pastor John on this blog, put it this way when I asked him about his pastoral visitation:

    We live in a time of transition, where people are shifting the way that they live in relationship. In a previous time, all visits would have been in home, but these days I try to ‘visit’ with people in the way that they chose to relate to me. I visit some people in their homes, but I have some people who have absolutely no interest in me coming to their home, so they will come to my office or we might meet at Panera. I also regularly ‘visit’ with some by email, text and Facebook and I have a new worshiper who communicates with me mostly on Twitter. For me, the key is meeting the person where they are and using the right approach to nurture, maintain and strengthen the relationship. There is no “one size fits all’ approach any more.

  • Two or More Notes Per Week


    I started doing it more than 25 years ago and continue to do it as an interim pastor. I make sure that I write at least two personal, handwritten notes each week to thank people within my congregation for doing excellent ministry. I want people to know how much I appreciate their wonderful ministry and encourage them to keep up their wonderful initiative. I started this before email, but I am sure that you could use that very effectively.

    The principle is simple—we need to thank people and then thank them again and again. We do not thank people enough, especially those who give so much of themselves every week. There are many other ways to thank people but this is a simple tool for the pastor or a member of the congregation who is willing to take the time to send notes.

    When I started doing the notes, I discovered that I needed to set aside a specific time to write them. My time was and still is Thursday morning. Soon it became automatic. I have been amazed at how much these notes have been appreciated and the positive impact they make on the life and spirit of the congregation.

  • Leadership Styles and Leadership Balance


    The following is adapted from a presentation by Dr. Kennon Callahan at the Mission Leaders Network Seminar for Key Leaders, Feb. 25, 2014.

    Dr. Callahan identifies six types of leaders who may be present in a congregation or a community.

    • Shepherding leaders – People who create community, family, roots, place and belong
    • Informal Grouping Leaders – In today’s world, people live in significant, relational groupings, not simply in geographical or formal groupings.  Often the informal leaders have more influence than formal leaders.
    • Worship leaders – We are happy to have grassroots leaders/volunteer leading worship.  Not all worship leaders need to be ordained.  In fact, the only people who preach are the people who have that gift.   Just because you are ordained, doesn’t mean you get to preach.  Worship is too important for people’s lives to allow someone to preach who does not have the gift of preaching.
    • Program leaders – People who focus on a particular program,
    • Administrative leaders – People who create organizations, policies, procedures, rules and regulations
    • Community mission leaders – People who focus on sharing God’s ministry with the world around them.

    If you can only put your money on one of the six types of leaders, go with shepherd leaders.  Shepherding leaders live grace and peace.  Shepherding leaders share grace and peace.

    A helpful Congregational Council has 1 or 2 of each type of leader.  The chair is a shepherd leader.