THE STATE OF PASTORS, Pt. 2

I’m very grateful for the work of the Barna Research Group on the current state of pastors in the United States which they shared in a recent online seminar. The news was much better in many ways and still alarming in others. As I mentioned previously, the mythological figure of 1500-1800 pastors leaving the ministry per month was never the result of an accurate research but simply an off-the-cuff “guesstimate” by a popular pastoral counselor that many of us took and ran with over the years because it grabbed people’s attention, of course. However, pastors are still struggling in significant ways. One out of nine are fighting burnout. One in five struggle with an addictive behavior- from porn to alchohol to opiates. And, one half of all pastors battle with depression. Contributing to that battle with depression is the fact that half of all pastors struggle with feeling isolated and lonely, compared with only 40% of average Americans. And, pastors feel more inadequate about their work or calling more than the average American as well.

The Barna Group focused on the fact that two levels of self-care are needed for pastors; self-care through spiritual disciplines and crisis care provided by prayer partnership in relationship with others. They found that nearly half of pastors struggle with finding time to invest in their own personal spiritual health. Pastors find it too tempting to equate work with spiritual practice. An important correlation to that issue is that the Barna Group also discovered in their research that personal consistency of spiritual practices translated to overall satisfaction and low risk metrics.

One of their final conclusions was this: it’s important for pastors to find safe people and safe places! Of course, I loved to hear that because that’s what CPR is all about! Indeed, that’s one of the great benefits provided by a CPR group. You participate with safe people- fellow pastors, in a safe place selected by the group. CPR is a terrific means of self-care for any pastor. A CPR group is simply a Celebrate Recovery 12 step group for pastors. Don’t fear stepping out to lead a group- it’s a simple process and is guided by the Holy Spirit. And, again, it’s safe and completely confidential! If you’re a pastor and have read this far, please consider starting a group in your area! We are ready to help in any way we can with ideas on how to do that. Send me an email to hess for more information.

STATE OF PASTORS

There’s an old song written and performed by Kenny Rogers many years ago entitled, Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In. I’m very grateful for the Barna Group in association with Pepperdine University for making their State of Pastors seminar available online yesterday. As a pastor, it provided a great opportunity to just drop in and see what condition my condition was in!

Again, many thanks to the Barna group and the individual who apparently underwrote the study for having the heart to tackle a subject that has needed to be responsibly addressed for a long time now. Over the past many years, much of what has been circulated, particularly regarding the burnout rate of pastors, has been based upon hearsay. The recirculating stat that had reached the status of “urban legend” which stated that 1500 pastors per month were leaving the ministry seemed to grow the more it was repeated- the last time I noticed a reference it was up to 1800/month! My understanding is that legend emerged from simply a well-intentioned best guess stated by a pastoral leader with a national ministry organization and was never the result of good research. But we sure took it and ran with it because it definitely caught people’s attention.

I regret that I didn’t get to hear the entire State of the Pastor presentation but wanted to share some things I did get to take away. One, as I just alluded to, we learned that pastors are doing better than we’ve all heard for so long now. I never heard any stats related to the hearsay above as to how many pastors are leaving the ministry every month, but I did hear solid research stating that only 11% of pastors are in imminent danger of burnout. This backed up some similar research done and shared by LifeWay awhile back.

Most alarming is that 66% of pastors are at “spiritual risk.” The easiest way of describing that is they are struggling spiritually. What makes that stat even more concerning is that “personal soul care” (or the lack thereof) is the leading indicator for burnout.

I’ll continue to share more takeaways in the next posting, but let me just here for now with this question: are you doing good self-care; especially good personal soul care? In other words, as we pastors typically ask a church member, how’s your walk with God?

More later…

THE SIGN OF CHRISTMAS

What is the biggest surprise you’ve ever gotten for a Christmas gift? My wife would tell you that one of hers was the gift I gave her on our very first Christmas that we celebrated together as husband and wife. I gave her…(wait for it) …a blender!!! I thought it was very practical, I mean, we needed a blender. And it was a nice blender- it had not one, not two, not three, but FOUR different settings! However, there was a SIGN that this was not JUST a blender… a sign that she almost missed because… she was so overwhelmed by the blender.

So, as I was realizing that my naïve newlywed clever idea was not so clever, and as tears were beginning to form in my wife’s eyes… I pointed out the sign to her! The unusual amount of paper stuffed inside the blender was a SIGN that there was something much more significant here than a blender! So I encouraged her to take off the top of the blender and take out what was inside. She began to unravel the paper, which had some weight to it. And, finally, she got to the jewelry box inside the paper, which contained a new watch. Needless to say, that was a good early marriage lesson to learn!

Signs can be very helpful in understanding the true significance of a gift! When the gift of Jesus Christ was born into this world, there were plenty of signs that he was not just another baby. But there was ONE sign in particular that we tend to overlook. Ironically, it’s the one sign we are actually told IS a sign. Luke 2: 8-12; Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

The word that Luke uses for “sign” is the same word used in the Bible for many amazing acts of God… the parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the 5000, the raising of the dead. It’s the same word that Gospel of John uses for the miracles of Jesus. It’s a word which means that these are not just random acts of God but they serve to point to something of great significance. On the night that Christ was born the angel told the shepherds that amidst the remarkably humble simplicity of a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger they will find someone of much greater significance than they could possibly imagne!!!

And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” What’s the significance of this sign? First, the babe- a newborn baby. God was born into this world as a human baby! Mary had to push, he had an umbilical cord, … there was all that other stuff that goes along with birth… he was a baby! If you’d been there, if you’d seen it, you would have said, “What’s so extraordinary about this child?” Unlike so many of the paintings of the Christ-child, he was not born with a halo; he did not always have an angelic other-worldly look on his face. And, contrary to the words of “Away in a Manger- “no crying he makes,” He even cried!

Max Lucado writes, “His cry though strong and healthy is still the helpless and piercing cry of a baby. And he is absolutely dependent on Mary for his well-being. Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of the sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable through the womb of a teenager and the presence of a carpenter.”

The mystery and marvel of Christmas- is that Jesus was born just like you and me! Someone once described a baby “as one long intestinal tract that makes loud noises at one end and exercises no responsibility at the other.” That’s what a baby is! That’s what we once were and that’s what God became!

A little girl had just fallen asleep one night when a loud thunderstorm woke up her. She was frightened and began to cry out. Her daddy came in and sat on the edge of her bed, hugged her, and began to stroke her hair, assuring her that all was ok. He tried to explain to her that there was no need to fear because God was with her- even though she can’t see him, he is right there with her. He asked, “Do you understand that, sweetheart?” She said, “Yes, daddy, but I need something with skin on it!”

God, our Heavenly Father, knew that we needed something with skin on it! Jesus Christ is God in human skin! Hebrews 2: 17-18, Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters,so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

Because of Jesus’ life and teachings and ministry on this earth we have a clear picture of who God really is and what He is like. He is a personal God who loves us and wants to have a relationship with us and help us. So, God became a human being and lived and walked in our shoes, so that he could completely identify with us- the people he came to save!

The sign also included being wrapped in swaddling cloths. Notice,it’s “cloths,” plural. In those days, newborn babies were often wrapped not in one large cloth, but in strips of cloths. Swaddling a baby is kinda like hogtieing a baby- you are making them immobile.

Now, pause for a moment and try to wrap your mind around that! Jesus Christ goes from having all the perfect freedom of divinity one moment to becoming a hogtied tiny baby the next. Imagine how odd that must have looked to the angels to see their Lord bound up as a newborn baby?

But how was this a sign? In this way. Being bound in cloths at the beginning of his life was a sign that pointed to how he would end his life- when he would be hogtied and beaten and crucified, then taken down from the cross and wrapped in very similar way to how he was wrapped as a newborn… but in much larger strips of cloths… cloths used to wrap a lifeless body before placing it in the tomb. Heb. 2:14; Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.

Christ shared our humanity so that he might DIE for us in order to break the power of the devil and redeem us from the bondage of sin and death for us! He who was completely free was bound so that we who were bound might be set free!!! Swaddling cloths- the sign of a Savior who redeems us!!!

The angel said, And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in… a manger. How is a manger part of the sign??? A manger is a feeding trough! It was built to serve the purpose of holding food, the life-sustaining nutrition for the animals! Remember these words of Jesus? John 6:35, Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.… Jesus was laid in a manger as a SIGN that He is the bread of life! Food for our souls!

Every person who is born into this world arrives with a God-shaped vacuum in their hearts. And we all try to fill that emptiness with all kinds of things. But there is only ONE who can truly fill it- Jesus Christ- God the Son! He came into the world to spiritually fill and sustain and nourish us.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of our Savior who came as a baby to identify w/ us, wrapped in swaddling cloths to redeem us, and lying in a manger to fill and sustains us!

May God bless you and yours with a wonderful Christmas!

THE ELECTION IS OVER, WHAT DO WE DO NOW?

Well, it’s been just over a month since the election. We sure learned a lot about our country, didn’t we? Isn’t it interesting how an election will expose the soul of a nation? God never said, “If you’ll just elect the right people to office then I’ll bless you!” He said this; 2 Chronicles 7:14, If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

You can draw a straight line from 2 Chronicles 6-7 to Nehemiah. Tragically, what Solomon was so concerned about in his prayer eventually did indeed happen! The Jews drifted so far away from God in their disobedience that God brought judgment in the form of the Babylonian army who destroyed the city of Jerusalem, the Temple and its walls, and the Jews that survived were taken to Babylon into captivity.

Over 130 years later, God answered the prayers of a Jew named Nehemiah who was serving in the court of the now Persian King in Babylon. God filled him with a vision to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of the city- which he led the Jews to miraculously accomplish in just 52 days! And once the walls were rebuilt, Nehemiah knew, unless the hearts of the people changed, it would only be a matter of time before the walls would crumble once again under the judgment of God.

In other words, even more important than rebuilding the walls was the rebuilding of the faith of the people! SO, with the walls completed, the big question was, how are the people going to live going forward from there? That’s the crucial question for us now that the ELECTION is over… how are we going to live our lives going forward from here?

So, after Nehemiah completed the walls, we read in Neh. 8:1, ALL the people came together as ONE in the square before the Water Gate. Just three chapters earlier, the people were bitterly divided, so much so that the work on the walls all but came to a complete halt.

The election has revealed more than ever before the great divide that exists in our country today. Very sad, but we’ve known that. But, what is even more heartbreaking to me, is the extent to which we have seen division among Christians! Instead of being caught up in the same divisiveness as everybody else, God’s people should be leading the way for the HEALING of our nation! But, before we can do that, we need to make sure our OWN hearts are right!

We’ll look next time at how that happened for Nehemiah’s people…

YAC, Pt. 5

Opposition to your ministry is one of the primary causes of burnout for pastors. We have been looking to Nehemiah for help in dealing with opposition. While rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem he reached a critical point in Chapter 4. The opposition became so intense and the discouragement of the people so overwhelming that work on the walls came to a halt. So, what did he do to get the people back on track?

The first thing he did was revise his plan. Nehemiah was inflexible when it came to his vision to rebuild the walls, but he was flexible with his plan for how to get there! A change of plans is not a change of vision. To overcome all the discouragement, he needed a change of plans. If you need to change horses in the middle of the stream, that’s ok, if it takes a different horse to get you to the other side. Don’t let your pride and ego get in the way of your own vision.

So, what was Nehemiah’s revised plan? Nehemiah 4:13,Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places (security and confidence), posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. Why by families? Because… when you are under attack, you NEED support! Never fight alone!

Earlier this fall, the Los Angeles Dodgers earned their way into the playoff for the National League Championship. It was just over 70 years ago, when they were still the Brooklyn Dodgers, that history was made when the Dodgers’ General Manager, a man named Branch Rickey, hired the first black professional baseball player… the great Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson.

It was a great vision that was shared by both Rickey and Robinson. In the initial interview, Rickey asked him, “I know you’re a good player, but do you have the guts?” Of course Robinson had guts. Then Rickey clarified what he meant by that question; “Do you have guts enough NOT to fight back?” Rickey knew in that day and age that Robinson would be subjected to all kinds of terrible verbal abuse, and to verbally or physically fight back would have disastrous results.

Rickey- a devout Christian himself- knew it would require a superhuman effort on Robinson’s part. He knew that Robinson could not do it alone- that he needed support. That support would come from Jackie Robinson’s own personal relationship with God, from Branch Rickey, from Jackie’s wife, Rachel; and, ultimately, from his teammates as well.

The verbal abuse from opposing teams and fans was unbelievable. At a game in Cincinnati, not long after he joined the team, the fans there were hurling all kinds of racial slurs and abuse at Robinson. All of a sudden, the Dodgers famous shortstop, Pee Wee Reece, called time out, slowly walked all the way across the infield and put his arm around Robinson. The crowd clearly understood the meaning of the gesture: “If you are against this man, you are against all of us! We stand together as a team!”

When you’re facing opposition, make sure you have support! Like the running back on the football field who needs a team, you need a team, too! You need your church family, you need your small group, you need CPR brothers. You need support.

V14, After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” There’s a play on words here. The words in Hebrew for “afraid” and “awesome” are the same word! He’s saying, don’t fear your opponents, fear God instead! If you fear God– if you lean into your relationship with him with ultimate honor and trust– then you are not going to fear people!

Instead of constant fearful thinking about your opponents that only leads to more discouragement, think instead upon the Lord— remember the Lord! Which is exactly what Nehemiah had already been doing! At the beginning of the verse 14, he said… “after I looked things over…” The implication of that phrase is that Nehemiah himself had found renewed strength/vision/confidence/security as he remembered back on all that God had done and all that God had provided in order to bring him to this place to fulfill the vision. By looking back he found the strength to move forward and into the future!

I recently had the privilege of preaching at the 20th church anniversary of a dear friend named, Rich. Rich and I had roomed together in seminary for a couple of years and have remained good friends ever since. I’m very grateful for his friendship. In fact, I probably would not be standing here this morning if not for him. I was working at the first church I served out of seminary in Little Rock, AR. I had been on staff at that particular church for a little over two years when, for a variety of reasons, I arrived at a one of the lowest points ever in my ministry. Quite honestly, I was about to give it up. I had applications to a couple of grad schools sitting on my desk as I pondered pursing a different career.

Then, late one afternoon, just before I was about to leave for the day, my friend, Rich, following a prompting from God, stopped by to say hello. He had come to Little Rock for the day for a DMin seminar and still had a good three hour drive ahead of him going back home, but he stopped anyway. It didn’t take long before I started to pour my heart out to him and told him that I was about to hang it up and pursue a different career in life. He listened to all I had to say. And then he spent some time helping me REMEMBER. He helped me think back to my calling from God to ministry, he helped me recapture the whole reason why I was doing what I was doing- why doing ministry! He prayed with me and went on his way. As a result, I decided to hang in there. Within the next week, circumstances around my greatest cause of discouragement completely and unexpectedly changed, and I became even more convinced of God’s vision for my life. I put the applications in the garbage.

When opposition comes, pray first, don’t strike back… don’t be discouraged… invite others to pray with you… revise your plan… lean on your support… and remember the Lord!

Look what happens as a result… v. 15, When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work.

The vision continued!

YAC, Pt. 4 (Dealing With Opposition)

Well, unfortunately, as Nehemiah’s enemy conspiracy spreads, discouragement starts to set in among his people. Ever encountered that phenomenon in your ministry? Where the talk among the people seems out of control? Nehemiah 4:10, Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.

They’re physically losing strength. They are worn out. By the way- do you recall how far Nehemiah tells us they had gotten at this point? Halfway done! Isn’t that so often the most discouraging point in a major project?

When we moved to another house about 5 years ago, I remember getting to what I figured was about the halfway point of the packing up process and thinking, “Holy cow, there’s still so much to do and I’m already worn out!” I told my wife that I didn’t think it was God’s will for us to move. But she reminded me that my Teddy Bear was already packed and she wasn’t getting it back out until we got to the new house! Halfway can be discouraging! Vince Lombardi said, "Fatigue makes cowards of all of us."

They were tired. And, they also started losing their vision. Notice they said, “there is so much rubble … ” I’m guessing when they first got started that they rarely even thought about how much rubble there was. But, when the opposition is mounting and your strength is fading, it’s easy to get discouraged and start focusing on the rubble instead of the vision. Are you focusing on the rubble or on the vision in your life?

Then they also start to lose their confidence. At the end of v. 10, notice, it’s not their opponents but themselves who say, “we cannot rebuild the wall.” The people who started with such a heart for the work now are losing heart.

And then they lose their sense of security as well! V. 11, Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”

The opposition is using a scare tactic- a terrorist tactic- spreading the word by making sure as many of the Jews as possible are overhearing or being directly told their surprise attack plans, “Hey, we have a plan and you don’t know what it is, just be assured, when you least expect it, bam! We’ll get you so fast you won’t even know what happened.”

V. 12,Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” It was turning into mass hysteria! “The CLOWNS are coming! Wherever you turn, CLOWNS are going to attack us!” (Did that happen in your community recently? J)

When you lose your strength and vision and confidence and security- you get discouraged!

At this point Nehemiah must’ve felt a bit like that running back trying to stay on his feet at this point. He hits the hole at full speed and bam- he’s stopped, he spins out to his left and bam- he’s stopped again, he shakes loose and spins out to his right and bam, he’s stopped there, too. He’s still on his feet, but it’s sure looking like no gain at this point, or maybe even being thrown for a loss!

With so much discouragement, what is he to do to get everyone back on track rebuilding the walls??? We’ll discover the answer to that in my next posting!

YAC, Pt. 3

One of the common causes of burnout in ministry is criticism and opposition. For whatever reasons it seems that some pastors have to deal with more than their fair share of it. But, for all pastors, it is something that comes with the territory. We have to learn to deal with it. If we don’t, we’ll burn out.

Nehemiah was one of the greatest leaders in the Bible, and he had to deal with opposition in a big way as he led the Jews in rebuilding the walls of the city of Jerusalem. In the previous post, we saw that the first key to dealing with opposition is to take it to God in prayer. Through prayer we invite God into our struggle and in doing so, we put the opposition in proper perspective. We are able to evaluate it from God’s perspective. If there’s something we need to learn from it, and sometimes there is, God will help make that clear to us. Through prayer, Nehemiah was able to keep his focus on the vision of rebuilding the walls.

I wish I could say that when you take it to God in prayer that your opposition will all go away. But, sometimes it doesn’t. In fact, sometimes the opposition intensifies. That’s what happened to Nehemiah. After Nehemiah rebuffed his initial opposition, we read; Chapter 4: 7-8, But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.

The conspiracy against the Jews grows! Now the Arabs and Ammonites and people of Ashdod are brought into it- people groups whose locations meant that Jerusalem was now surrounded! And, once again, Nehemiah responded with prayer. But, this time was different. This time, he was not the lone prayer. This time the people followed his lead and joined him! V.9a, But WE prayed to our God… And, in addition to praying, Nehemiah said, V. 9b, and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

Some people may try to make a big deal out of the posting of the guard and say that Nehemiah was demonstrating a lack of faith. But, that’s not the case at all. God gives us the gift of prayer. But, He also gives us the gift of common sense. Think about it. If you received word through your neighborhood association or the local authorities that thieves were frequenting your neighborhood and had already robbed two houses, how would you respond? Certainly, you would pray for God’s protection. But, is that all you would do? Absolutely not! You would also make sure you kept all your doors locked and the alarm set.

When opposition comes, trust God and pray. But, use your common sense to also respond as needed! Common sense may dictate certain actions you can take that will provide practical protection. Pray and respond with appropriate common sense.

(To be continued…)