Thursday, March 29, 2012

How to Make Pastoral Visits as a Lay Person

Many of us can recall a time when a minister visited us at a crucial point in our lives. Perhaps we were in the hospital, or perhaps had just lost a loved one, but in a moment of need, a pastor was there to comfort us and pray with us.

When a pastor makes such a visit in a time of need, it is called “pastoral care.” The main difference between a pastoral care visit and just a visit from a friend is that a pastoral care visit includes spiritual aspects. A mere “friendly” visit may involve discussion about family, or the weather, or who won the ball game. A pastoral care visit may discuss those kinds of things, but will also include scripture reading and prayer and/or other encouraging spiritual aspects.

Many pastors who are fully-funded take time each day to make rounds to the hospital or to the homes of church members to provide pastoral care. Pastors who are bivocational, which means they work a job in addition to serving the church, have much less time to devote to pastoral care. This does not mean that bivocational pastors care less than fully-funded pastors, it is simply a reality of the amount of time bivocational pastors have available due to their other jobs. When a church has a bivocational pastor, it is vital that lay people assume some of the responsibilities for pastoral care; otherwise this important ministry may be unintentionally neglected.

Lay people may feel intimidated about providing pastoral care to their fellow church members. But pastoral care is not as complicated as it may seem. Lay people can be trained to offer pastoral care effectively. In order to make effective pastoral care visits, lay people should follow these simple tips:

1. Focus on the person being visited, not our own stories or history of similar situations.

2. Keep the visit short. The visit should be a maximum of ten minutes unless it is a life threatening situation or the person clearly does not want you to leave.

3. Read a short scripture that is appropriate to the situation. Consider purchasing a
Minister’s Manual or the Bible Promise Book that has appropriate scriptures organized in categories for easy use.

4. Ask if there is anything the person needs done. It is important to follow up on this need. If the person asks for something that is not feasible, it is better to tell them so and ask if there is anything else that can be done instead. Otherwise it might create a false sense of hope, which can cause greater problems later.

5. Close the visit with a short prayer for the person and the situation.

Adapted from the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. The book contains six easy to use lessons to teach lay people to work as a team with their pastor. Though the book is designed specifically for bivocational pastors, many fully-funded pastors are finding it equally helpful for training their lay people.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Creating a Leadership Team in the Small Church

I have written frequently about the need for churches to be led by teams instead of just one person. A number of pastors and lay leaders have asked how they should go about creating such a leadership team. Though each church will have to weigh the situation of their individual church, the following steps can serve as a guideline for how a pastor or lay leader might gather a leadership team in his church.

1. Pray and seek the will of God to determine if this is the right style of leadership to pursue for your specific church at this specific time. Though healthy churches should be led by teams, sometimes
the timing is not right and pastors have to put off creating a leadership team for a short period while they deal with others issues. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you if this is the right time to move forward with this idea.

2. Spend three to six months teaching the congregation why this leadership style would be right for your church at this particular time. Do not just make an announcement on a Sunday morning and expect people to adopt a new leadership style without time to think it through. Preach from a number of scripture passages that demonstrate team leadership. Do not assume that everyone in the church will get on board after one sermon. Preach about it several times before moving forward with changes to the church leadership structure. In addition to preaching from the scripture, consider teaching chapters 1-3 of the book
Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church to the entire congregation over a period of time. Though that book was written specifically for bivocational churches, the material has been used effectively in churches that are not led by a bivocational pastor.

3. Ask the congregation to test out this
leadership style for one year before actually making any changes to the church constitution or bylaws. People tend to resist structural change when asked to do something they have never done before. Therefore, remove that barrier by asking the congregation to simply experiment with the idea for a while. If the concept does not work, the old way will still be there to go back too. The structure may have to be tweaked a few times anyway, so do not set it in stone until it is worked out. Once the new leadership structure is working effectively, then make the structure official in whatever ways are appropriate.

4. Ask the congregation to set aside those individuals who will be a part of the leadership team.
Pray over the group and ask God to give them wisdom as they move forward. Ask God to give them flexibility as they try a new way of leading. Ask God to help them be willing to change mid-stream if the system adopted is not working as well as it should. Elect the individuals to this leadership team if that is what your congregational polity calls for.

Create a pastoral care schedule that includes each person on the team. The goal is to spread out the visitation and ministry duties so that the pastor is not doing it all. This not only makes the congregation healthier, but it gives the pastor a break in order to avoid burn-out. Any system that meets that goal will be a success but these options might be considered: splitting the entire congregation up into groups with each team member assigned a group, giving each team member one week a month to do whatever visitation needs to be done, having the team members make any visits that arise on the pastor’s day off or when out of town, or having one week a month when the pastor makes no visits and the rest of the team makes all the visits.

Create a preaching schedule that includes each person on the team. The schedule can be any system that works for the team, but a suggestion would be that the pastor preaches three Sundays a month and one of the other people from the team preaches one Sunday a month. In a month that has five Sundays, a second person from the team would preach one time. Or, if the congregation prefers that the pastor do most of the preaching on Sunday mornings, then assign mid-week Bible studies and other teaching times to the other members of the team so the pastor can focus on making his Sunday morning sermon the best it can be. This is particularly important if the pastor has to work a second job and has limited time to devote to sermon preparation.

7. The leadership team should meet at least once a month to plan sermon topics and update each other on whom in the congregation received a visit and who still needs one. Spend a day together once a year to plan the major annual focuses of the church.

Adapted from the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway. The book contains six easy to use lessons to train lay people to assist their pastor in ministry.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How to Make an Effective Visit to a Person Who Has Been Absent From Church

People go through phases in life. Sometimes they are very faithful in their church attendance. Other times they are less faithful. When people go through a phase in life that causes them to stray from church, they often do not realize how much time has elapsed since they last attended. The phase might have started as a short absence due to an illness, or perhaps a change in work schedule, but the more time that goes by, the easier it is for a short-term absentee to become a long-term absentee. A well timed and uplifting visit from a caring deacon or other lay person can help absentees know they are missed and encourage them to return to church.

Before going to visit an absentee, we should first pray to the Lord for wisdom to respond to whatever reason he or she may offer for why the extended absentee has occurred. We should also pray that the individual will receive the visit with joy instead of embarrassment.

Make an appointment if the visit will be at the person’s home, few people like someone to drop by unannounced. In some situations, it might be appropriate to stop by their place of employment instead of their home. However, this really depends on the policies of their employer. Make sure not to create a situation that will cause the person difficulties with their supervisor. If the person making the visit is sensitive to the Spirit, it is also possible to turn a causal encounter with an absentee in the community into an opportunity for a kind invitation for them to return to church.

Remember that the primary motive for speaking to an absentee is to express concern and let them know they have been missed at church. Though difficult issues may come up in the conversation, the primary motive is not to correct the person or address some controversial issue. If significant issues come up about why they have not been in church, schedule a longer period of time at some later date to discuss those issues with the person instead of making the initial contact long and protracted. The obvious exception would be if they have mentioned in advance that they have a significant issue they want to talk about specifically.

Sometimes it is better to invite an absentee to lunch first, or to attend a concert or play together, and just reconnect with them on a personal level first. Then a second contact can be made letting them know how much they have been missed at church. Never condemn people for not coming to church. They may have a legitimate reason for not coming. The goal should be to find out what that reason is and see if it can be resolved.

During the visit seek to answer any questions that may come up. Perhaps something happened during a worship service that they did not understand  which made them hesitant to come.

Offer to sit with them when they come back to church. They may feel less self-conscious than just showing up after a long absence and sitting alone. Encourage others to warmly welcome the person back when he or she arrives.

Be persistent. Many people have filled their lives with other things and it may take time for them to readjust their schedule enough to find time to come back to church. Others have significant emotional or spiritual baggage they are dealing with and it may take a while for them to work through it and be comfortable coming to church. Extend repeated invitations over a period of time without being pushy at any particular point.

Perhaps most important, remain friends whether they return to church or not. Since people go through phases in life, they may not yet be ready to return to church. When they are ready, they will remember who showed real friendship to them. When the time is right absentees will return to church.

This is an excerpt from the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway. The book contains six easy to use lessons to train lay people to assist their pastor in ministry.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The World May Be A Mess – But God’s Ultimate Purpose Still Holds

A sermon and testimony based on Habakkuk 1 from Terry Dorsett

Introduction to Habakkuk
                  Habakkuk was a little known prophet who lived about 700 years before Christ.
                  He would have served as a prophet about the same time as the prophet Jeremiah, who was more well-known.
                  This was a time in which the nation of Israel was in midst of being destroyed, mostly due to their unwillingness to serve the Lord wholeheartedly.
                  There were individuals who loved the Lord and tried to turn the nation back to God, such as prophets like Jeremiah, as well as King Hezekiah and King Josiah, but the hearts of most people were unmoved.
                  Many people made outward displays of religion in order to please someone in authority, but as soon as the authority was not looking, they abandoned their faith. This meant that in their hearts, they were far from God.
                  It was a period of general deterioration of religious principles and conviction. Personal relationship with God had reached a new low in their culture.
                  Our modern culture has a lot of similarities to Habakkuk’s day, which is why we should study this small book that hardly anyone reads.

Verse 1 - The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
                  The Hebrew word for oracle is masa and literally means a heavy burden.
                  This heavy burden came from what Habakkuk observed happening all around him.
                  Habakkuk’s name meant embracer or wrestler.
                  The word picture is that Habakkuk wrestled with deep burdens caused by what he observed around him.

Verse 2 - How long, LORD, must I call for help and You do not listen or cry out to You about violence and You do not save?
                  Habakkuk was so burdened by the pain and heartache that he saw around him, that he began to question God.
                  Questioning God is not the same thing as doubting God. Questioning has to do with understanding, whereas doubting has to do with our level of faith.
                  Habakkuk’s faith was strong. He knew God was real and He knew God had the power to change the situations he saw around him.
                  What Habakkuk was struggling with was why God let some of this bad stuff happen anyway and why was God taking so long to change it.
                  How often have we cried out to God and felt that He was not listening?
                  How often have we felt deep burdens for unjust things we see happening around us and pleaded with God to change the situation and yet, God remained silent?

Verse 3 - …Why do You tolerate wrongdoing? Oppression and violence are right in front of me. Strife is ongoing, and conflict escalates.
                  Habakkuk wants to know why God tolerates so much junk.
                  Habakkuk can see all the oppression around him, so he knows God sees it too.
                  It seemed to Habakkuk that things were getting worse, not better.
                  Like Habakkuk, we are deeply burdened about these things too.
                  Like Habakkuk, we see a lot of really bad stuff going on in our world and it seems to be getting worse, not better.
                  We often ask, “Where is God in all of this?”

Verse 5 - Look at the nations and observe— be utterly astounded! For something is taking place in your days that you will not believe when you hear about it.
                  In the first few verses Habakkuk prays a prayer of questioning.
                  Though God had been silent for a very long time, when God sees that Habakkuk is ready, He begins to answer.
                  God’s answers are often deep and complex and we need to be ready when they come.
                  Though we often want to go to church and get easy answers, we know deep inside that there are no easy answers.
                  Life is complex and therefore the answers to our questions are complex as well.
                  God often withholds those answers until we are ready to really deal with them.
                  As much as we say we want all the answers at once, the reality is that most of us cannot handle that much truth at one time.
                  We need complex answers to come to us one little piece at a time.
                  When God begins to answer Habakkuk, it was not the answer the prophet expected.
                  Habakkuk had only been looking at the situations he saw around him in his own community.
                  God told him to look the nations and see what God was doing around the world.
                  God knew that when Habakkuk did that, it would astound him.
                  It is easy for us to get tunnel vision and only see our personal problems, or maybe the problems of those closest to us.
                  Sometimes we need to step back and realize that what we are experiencing is actually only a small part of a much larger puzzle.

Verses 6-7, 11 - Look! I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter, impetuous nation ...  their views of justice and sovereignty stem from themselves. Their strength is their god.
                  The Chaldeans were a terrible people who were wrapped up in their own greatness.
                  Yet God was going to use these terrible people to accomplish a piece of His greater purpose and plan for the world.
                  We may never understand all of what God is doing in our lives, but when we step back and get a bigger perspective, we can understand some of what God is doing.

Verse 12 - Are You not from eternity, Yahweh my God? My Holy One, You will not die. LORD, You appointed them to execute judgment; my Rock, You destined them to punish us.
                  Habakkuk responds with the acknowledgement that God is indeed present in all phases of eternity.
                  We tend to think God is only present when we can feel Him, or understand Him, or see His actions visibly around us.
                  But God is always present and active, whether we see Him, feel Him or observe Him at any particular phase of our life.
                  Habakkuk accepts the fact that God was going to use these terrible people as a part of God’s bigger plan. It was their destiny.
                  When we go through difficult times, we can get so focused on the pain of the moment, that we miss the bigger things that God is doing through the pain.
                  We seldom understand all of what God is doing until after the experience is over and we have had time to reflect on it.
                  We must remember that God’s timing is not always man’s timing.
                  God is working on an eternal schedule, whereas we are trying to make everything work out tomorrow!
                  Part of faith involves trusting God’s timing.

Verse 13 -Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, and You cannot tolerate wrongdoing. So why do You tolerate those who are treacherous? Why are You silent while one who is wicked swallows up one who is more righteous than himself?
                  Habakkuk understood all this, but his heart was still burdened and he still had some questions.
                  We can relate to this, because even when we recommit ourselves to God’s timing, all of our questions do not disappear immediately.
                  We must accept that some of our questions will NEVER be answered.
                  That too, is part of faith.
                  But since we know that God is pure and cannot tolerate wrong, then in the end, God is going to make all things pure and right.
                  We rarely understand the process by which God makes all things pure and right, but part of having faith is believing that the process itself has value, even when we do not understand it.
                  God’s purposes and plans are intertwined with His sovereignty in ALL things.
                  God has an ultimate purpose He is working toward and somehow God uses all the events in our lives to bring about that ultimate purpose.
                  As we wait for the ultimate purpose to be revealed, sometimes we are left with more questions than answers. That’s reality.
                  But do the questions we have teach us something important about ourselves?
                  Is it possible that the very questions are part of the process God is using in our lives?
                  Can a time of ongoing confusion and difficulty be used by God to make us into something more than we were before?

A Time in My Life When I Questioned God
             January 1999 Kay and I and our son Jonas, who was 5 years old at the time, were on our way to visit a person in our church who was in the hospital.
             Our plans for the day were interrupted when we were hit head on by a drunk driver.
             It was 11 AM, but the person who hit us had already had an entire fifth of vodka, as well as some drinks at a friend’s house, and had just started on her second bottle when she came around the bend near where Project Independence used to be on Route 302.
             The collision was very severe. My wife’s arm was shattered and she still has trouble with her wrist, despite surgery that installed a metal place and numerous screws that hold her wrist together.
             My right leg was shattered from the knee down and the first paramedic to arrive on the scene told me they would probably have to amputate it because I had no pulse in my leg.
             But the worst injuries were sustained by my son Jonas, whose back was broken.
             After they stabilized us at the hospital, they told us they were not equipped to handle Jonas’s injuries and they wanted to rush him to Dartmouth Hitchcock, where they have a pediatric intensive care unit.
             Kay went with him, but they could not move me because of my injuries. They told me to say good bye to Jonas because they did not think I would ever see him alive again.
             The days that followed remain the darkest moments of my life.
             Obviously Jonas did not die, for which I will ever be thankful to God. And they did not have to amputate my leg, which I am also grateful.
             But the recovery time took several months and was both physically and emotionally painful.
             As it turns out, the drunk driver who hit us was not a stranger. She was the cashier at the store across the street from our house.
             We knew her as a grumpy woman but never realized the depth of her alcohol addiction.
             I wish I could tell you that since I was a pastor that my heart overflowed with love for this women who caused so much pain in our lives. But that would be a lie.
             I do not think that hate is too strong a word to describe how I felt about her.
             In the weeks the followed, I knew theologically that I needed to forgive her. But having a head knowledge of some doctrine is far different from living that doctrine out. Even acting like we think God wants us to is empty and vain if not from the heart. And my heart had no mercy for this woman.
             Several relatives came to stay with us during that time to help us through what was a very challenging period in our lives.
             Because my leg had been so shattered, I had a rod inside my leg, which is still there, and bolts that were drilled into the bone and sticking outside my leg into an outer metal brace that I wore for months.
             We lived in a small parsonage with a tiny bathroom. It  was physically impossible for me to use the toilet in the bathroom, so we had a portable toilet set up in my room.
             People, such as my sister in law and my mother in law, had to help me onto the toilet and clean me up afterwards. It was deeply humiliating.
             As we were struggling to recover physically, God was working on me emotionally and spiritually. That doctrine of forgiveness kept coming to mind. But in my opinion, that grumpy woman did not deserve forgiveness.
             I began to harbor bitterness in my heart toward her. I am ashamed to say that I actually prayed that she would get into another accident and be killed.
             In my head, I knew this was wrong. But in my heart, I could easily justify these feelings.
             She was just a grumpy drunk who had nearly killed my family.
             Whereas, I viewed myself quite highly. I had left a large church in South Carolina where I had been the associate pastor where I made a good salary and lived in a lovely parsonage the church had just fully restored.
             I had left all that to move to a small village in Vermont to become pastor of a church of 20 people that paid me $60 a week and live in a poorly maintained, drafty, cold parsonage. And to be honest, not all of those 20 church members treated me very kindly.
             One night I was arguing with God about why He had let this happen to me. This had become a fairly common nightly ritual for me.
             Why had God let me, a godly person who had sacrificed so much to serve the Lord, suffer so terribly while that grumpy drunk woman only had a cracked rib that they put an Ace bandage on and sent home.
             In those moments, I felt exactly as Habakkuk did as he observed what was happening around him. Perhaps many in this room feel that way right now.
             On one particular night, while I tried to make it to portable toilet on my own, I fell onto the floor. I was in great pain and could not get up.
             As I laid on that floor in such a humiliating position, thinking I had broken my hip, my anger welled up toward God.
             What kind of God lets this happen to a good person like me? What kind of God lets a grumpy drunk get away with near murder?
             God remained silent.
             Then I tried a different tack with God, thinking I would put God in His place.
             I said to the Lord, “Don’t You realize what that woman did to my son?”
             That was when God answered.
             God said “Yes. And your son lived. But do you realize what you did to MY SON JESUS? My Son had to die because of your sin.”
             Something changed inside of me that day.
             Though I cannot say that I totally forgave that woman instantly, I began a spiritual journey toward wholeness that has changed my life for the better.
             I learned the power of forgiveness, not just in that situation, but in every area of my life. And what power it is to forgive even those who do not deserve it!
             I learned about the evil of self-righteousness.
             I learned about the danger of having a judgmental attitude toward people with sin issues.
             I learned about mercy and grace.
             I learned to live out my fancily worded doctrines from a heart that truly had been changed.
             During that time, I re-wrote Psalm 23.

             Psalm 23 – Revised By a Questioning Pastor - January 28, 1999
The Lord is my shepherd even when I don’t feel like He is.
He helps me rejoice over today’s victories instead of always looking at greener pastures.
He restores my soul through the refreshing water of His Spirit and gives me the strength to stay on the path of righteousness for His glory, not my own.
As I walk through the valley of death, I did fear the evil and the darkness, but You were with me. Your Word and Your ways, they comforted me.
You allow me to look at those who have brought this harm into my life. You have filled me with your Spirit until I am overflowing with your Presence.
By faith I accept that nothing happens in my life apart from Your will. So even this experience is full of goodness and mercy. It will change me for the rest of my life and help me to know You better when I come into eternal life.

             Eventually I invited the lady to church.
             When she finally went to jail for her crime, I went to visit her in prison.
             When she got out of jail, she began to come to church regularly.
             One day as she left church she said, “Can you come to my home and tell me how I can meet this Jesus you love so much.”
             A deacon and I went to visit her, and she repented of her sins and placed her faith in Christ alone for her eternal salvation.
             I baptized her and she became very active in the church.
             For a time she was even on the church board, until her health began to fail her.
             Not long ago she was elected by her church to represent them at the annual business meeting of the Baptist Convention of New England.
             We sat on the same row, making huge decisions for how our denomination would reach New England for Christ. Now we are no longer enemies, we are partners in the Gospel. Is this why God did it all?

             Our lives are often filled with pain.
             Though we cry out to God for help, sometimes He remains silent.
             We can become bitter about God’s silence during our time of pain, or we can choose to trust in the ultimate goodness of God, knowing that His purposes will be accomplished when the time is right.