Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: The New Pastor's Handbook by Jason Helopoulos

Its funny, this is a book I started writing to myself about a year into my first pastorate. Of course it wasn't this very book but I realized one day, that if I could go back a year and have a chat with myself, I had a lot to say. Seminary was great and I felt well equipped. Growing up in the church, I thought I was ready for full-time church life. I knew I would still have some growing and learning to do but there were things I never saw coming. 

There were situations (which I would never discuss in a public forum such as this) I never thought I'd have to walk people through in my first year. There was a new normal to life and ministry that I wasn't really ready for. I think all of us who have stepped into pastoral life have similar experiences. Jason Helopoulos has taken those experiences and the lessons learned and put together the book that I wish I'd read my first year.

The book itself is made up of nearly 50 short chapters covering a broad range of topics. The chapters are short, most only 3-4 pages, covering one single topic. These short chapters are easy to read and digest in short blocks of time making the book very accessible. Reading through it there were things that surprised me and things that didn't. There were issues I hadn't faced and some I did.

Beyond the issues covered in the book, the suggested reading in the appendix will help you grow in many of those areas. I found that I had already read most of them and they were all ones I'd recommend.  

I do think this would be a good read for anyone who is, or is about to be, a new pastor. The wisdom found in these pages will make your early days a little smoother.

(I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Whatever happens tomorrow...

By this time tomorrow we should know the results of our 42nd federal election. The outcome is uncertain, the polls say what they say but the only one that matters is the final ballot count. No matter the result there will be winners and losers, those rejoicing, those commiserating. 

This election showed how deeply divided our country is in some regards. There was more vilifying the other guy and little talk about working together. Many people have trouble cutting through the noise and figuring out who to cast their vote for. Many are voting simply for change or because of a single issue. Regardless of who any one person votes for and why, when the votes are tallied, we will have our answer. What should our reaction be to the outcome? 

As people of faith, we must look to scripture for guidance to our reaction to the final outcome. We must understand that there is no party that is God's divine choice and no party that is devil incarnate. No matter who is elected they will do things we agree with and don't agree with. We must also recognize that we cannot legislate morality. The right laws will not usher in God's kingdom, or bring His divine favour upon us. We are far beyond the days of being a Christian nation, if we ever truly were. We are a minority but that's not a bad thing, it actually puts the verses below closer to our present context.

1 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. -1 Timothy 2:1-3

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. - 1 Peter 2:13-14

These two passages tell us to pray for and submit to the rulers over us. 1 Timothy 2 tells us to pray for those over authority over us so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness. We are to pray for our leaders not so they implement the policies we want them to but so that we might live in an ordered and peaceful society, so we can live our lives in ways others see our lives and may be saved. 

Peter tells us to submit to human authority which may not be easy at times and there will certainly be times we still need to stand up for what is right, but no matter how bad we think our leader might be, we must remember the emperor of Peter's day was Nero. No matter what you think of any of our federal leaders, none of them compares to Nero. 

The truth is, we will not find salvation in the polls. Our hope is not found in the leaders of the world. Our hope is in Christ alone and until He comes to set all things right, let's remember to pray for and submit to whomever is elected tomorrow. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion

I'm a big fan of history, especially history related to biblical studies. I'm also a big fan of making that history interesting and accessible. You don't need to be a scholar to really get what the Bible is saying but some background can fill in. A great resource I read recently was "A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion" by Gary Burge. By piecing together a plausible back story to story found in Matthew and Luke of Jesus healing a centurion's servant Burge gives us a window into what life was like in the first century.

Along with the main narrative, the book is filled with sidebars that provide additional insights into specific topics such as clothing, military structure, transportation and more. These helpful sidebars give the reader the opportunity to dive deeper into the background of the day. This gives the book a nice balance between novel and textbook. If you're looking for a way to get a little deeper into the background of the gospels, check out this book.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Road to Becoming - Jenny Simmons

I received this book not knowing the author was also one of my favorite musicians. Simmons, as the lead singer of the group Addison Road has written and performed some very deep and moving songs. This book however is about how it all came undone, how it all fell apart, how a dream died and the road to coming out the other side. Too often we only see the success of those in the limelight. We hear a great song on the radio but we don't know about the year living across the street from a pimp, the endless weeks on the road, the baby's first Christmas in a Motel 6, the call that nearly everything you own is literally being scraped off the interstate because your RV blew up and burned so hot he highway patrol needed special equipment to separate the remains from the road. We don't hear about the hard times, we are left thinking those who have made it have had an easy road. Simmons' openness and honestly about the journey through success, and then having to let go and let the dream die is one of encouragement and hope.

As one who has had to watch a dream die and walk the road of unknowing and waiting to see where things will land I found this to be an incredibly encouraging read. The road to becoming who and what God is calling us to be will often not be an easy on, nor will the route be nicely mapped out for us to see but we must learn to follow where it leads and trust the One who is leading us. 

If you need hope for your journey, if you feel like your dream has died, if you are just setting out on the road towards your dream, this is a read reminder that the road way not go where we think but if we trust God for the destination and that He will carry us through every chapter of it. 

(I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: The Irresistible Community

Community is something that we all long for. Its something that every church advertises and yet so often come up short. Community is something that should be integral to the life of the church and yet the countless volumes on this topic are a pretty good indicator of the fact we often come up short. I found myself intrigued by the title and the catalog description of “The Irresistible Community” when the publisher offered me a copy for review. I found myself engaged within the first pages as the author uses the illustration of the Last Super to show us what community was intended to be. Each chapter begins with a first person narrative from one of the 12 disciples. Donahue does a great job and drawing us into each of their stories and how they likely felt on that fateful night. This personal vignettes give us an personal and emotional connection to the various elements of community each chapter addresses.

The book itself is broken into three sections, which cover the three dimensions of community that make it irresistible. The Table is where we gather and community happens. The Towel is what we must pick up to serve each other and together serve others. The Truth which must encircle our community. I really appreciated these three dimensions as many “communities” fall short because they lack or over emphasize one. We're often good at gathering around a table but often fail to pick up the towel or we're so engrossed in serving we forget the truth, or so concerned with the truth we fail to serve.

The first section talks about the Table, how we find our place, table manners, different kinds of tables and telling our stories around the table. The truth is a lot of community happens around the table, often because food is involved, but what I appreciated most in this section was the recognition that there are different kinds of tables. Not everything can be or should be done at the dinner table. Sometimes one needs, not a family dinner, but a boardroom or a surgery. There are tables made for these different situations and it is important to recognize that community can play many different rolls including, counsel, encouragement, correction, negotiation, teaching and more. There are different kinds of tables, and recognizing which one you are at and the rules around that table is key to doing life together.

The second section deals with the Towel. Just as Jesus picked up the towel to wash the feet of His disciples, we too need to pickup the towel and serve. A community must serve those inside and outside its numbers. The author makes several good points here, including the fact that the towel will get dirty. Serving gets dirty but in the dirt, it is rewarding. A couple of helpful points in this section are in the Don't do list about how to use your towel. This included, not waiting until your exact gifts are needed to serve and don't lose the big picture. The first has to do with sitting on the sidelines because we don't think we really fit the need yet, often we can do something and may even need a little stretching. The second is that we must always keep the fact we are part of something bigger in mind and that even the smallest thing might have a major impact. Often times the big break troughs don't come from something spectacular but just from hundreds, if not thousands of cups of coffee shared in love.

The final section deals with the truth that every community must keep. This is not simply about including a Bible study in every community but letting the truth of the scripture really get inside us to transform and renew. Truth must be at the heart of community, it is only when we know and embrace the truth of who we are in Christ and to each other that we can get any depth to our relationships. The truth at times will hurt but it will also heal. When we face the truth we can truly see ourselves and others and build the kind of community we long for.

Overall I found this to be a great and accessible book and well worth the read for anyone in church leadership or simply wanting to build and be a part of an irresistible community.

(I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sermon: Romans 2:1-16

I had the privilege of preaching at my home church recently. It was part of a series on Romans through the summer. It can be heard here:

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review - The More With Less Church

This is a book that really deserved more than a brief overview. This book is a must read for anyone in ministry that feels the pinch of leaner times and having to do more ministry with fewer people, fewer dollars and not enough space. The authors are part of a consulting group called Living Stones Associates where they have been helping churches work through the very issues they address in this book. 

The book is divided into four sections covering for significant areas you can do more with less. Each chapter lays out a single change your church can make to do more with less. The chapters are concise and easy to read, making this book very accessible. Though easy to read, the various topics addressed throughout would all take time and additional resources to work through. Overall, I would say this is an excellent high-level book that can help you map out a strategy in each of the four areas covered. I would suggest this is a must read for pastor's and an excellent read for your board. Given its accessibility, I can see it being used to get your board onside with what could be some major changes that are barriers to your health and growth. Starting with this book and many of the footnoted resources you can develop a plan forward. 

More-with-Less Ministry

This section covers how to do more ministry with fewer resources. The biggest take away in this section is found on the first page. "Nine times out of ten, the problem isn't too few workers, its too many slots" (p19) The authors point out we too often have too many programs and too many slots to fill. They encourage us to seriously look at the resources we have and program accordingly. If you are running 3 different children's programs and barely getting by, you may be more effective running 2. (As I was editing this post I saw this post from the Malphurs Group with some tips for cutting a good ministry for something betterBy consolidating the good parts of each program you will likely end up with a more effective program and fewer overtaxed volunteers. I heard this articulated by a speaker once who said we need to think inside the box. It runs counter to the popular belief that we must do something different, that we must think outside the box. The speaker pointed out that this can lead to a mindset of "if only we had x we could do great things" rather than being faithful with the people and resources God has provided us. The speaker went on to say that they had found as they were faithful with a little, in time they found God provided the addition people, skills and resources as they needed them. 

Other chapters in this section deal with the bureaucracy of the church and the danger it can pose to your mission. There is also a good discussion of discipleship and leadership development. Both of these chapters encourage us to buck conventional wisdom and focus on a few. The discipleship chapter leans the work of Greg Ogden, whose materials I have found most useful.

More-with-Less Staff

This is a short, but vital section. A church staff can make or break a ministry. One of the common issues this section addresses is what is a pastor to do. The authors argue that pastors are to equip the members of the church to do ministry, multiplying their efforts. I've heard it defined as the difference between an equipping pastor and a chaplain, a chaplain only has so much capacity, a equipping pastor, equips his people to carry out ministry. A vital part of this section is building the right team of people who are on mission together and empowered to make the decisions they need to make. The idea of building a good team is certainly not new and there are many resources out there to help you do this. The chapter titled "The overpaid secretary" however is something that is not pointed out very often. The point of this chapter is that there are too many pastors doing too much secretarial work. It can often be a challenge to squeeze the money out of a church budget to hire additional secretarial labour. As this chapter points out though, if much of this work falls to full-time pastoral staff a church is overpaying for this work.

More-with-Less Buildings

This is actually the longest section in the book and contains much great advice. Having been a part of churches in the midst of building programs and visiting dozens of church buildings across the country much of this section resonated with my experience. The author of this section spent 30 years as architect designing churches. He admits that as he began looking at it more closely that much of the conventional wisdom he had held and disbursed over the years was actually detrimental to church growth. One of the biggest things in this chapter is how expensive and ineffective it is to build single purpose facilities. I have seen many churches that were overbuilt in one regard, such as seating, and woefully under built in an area such as classroom or foyer space. The author makes the case for building multi-use space that is more flexible and easier to repurpose. A couple of points that I found particularly interesting was 1) consider building a storage shed before you consider any other addition as most churches are wasting space simply storing things and 2) less obvious but consider the value of renovating your office space as functional office space is a key ingredient to a well functioning staff team.

The chapters covering multi-service and multi-venue solutions is very well done. In my opinion this chapter alone is more than worth the price of the book. Of the recommendations made throughout the book, adding a second service is one of the least surprising and is a path many churches have taken. There is a chapter listing the most common mistakes you can make in adding a second service. Among these mistakes is casting it as a temporary solution until a building program is completed and having your services scheduled too close or too far apart. The multi-venue/multi-site discussion is also very helpful and a route the more churches are adopting. Adding an additional venue can be a very cost effective way to increase your capacity as well as appeal to a broader portion of your community by having services in different places and of different styles.

One a side note Ed Stetzer has written some interesting pieces on church building trends that I think resonate with what's laid out in this book. You can browse his posts about church buildings here.

More-with-Less Finances

This short, yet vitally important section dealing with the area of finances makes some very good points. The author argues that churches should not, with very few short-term exceptions, take on debt. One of the points they make is that the business reasons to take on debt such as financing revenue generating property or using debt as a tax advantage, don't apply to churches. Further, the risks of debt, such as economic downturn or other drops in revenue, churches are actually at greater risk from. Debt can also limit future growth, particularly if you build it and they don't come. As the authors point out, and I've seen for myself, many churches overbuild and then struggle to pay the mortgage. Even if the church can pay its mortgage, it is funnelling money to pay for debt that could be much better used. Even in my home church, close to 10% of the general offering is going to pay down the building program from over 10 years and we've got about another 10 years to go. The authors recommend getting out of debt and setting yourself up to stay out. Giving to debt isn't as exciting as many other ministries but framed as a step forward it can help move a church towards first, sustainability, then towards growth. 

One final note about this section. The author, rightly so, points out that there is often a disconnect between the stewardship teaching offered in the church and our willingness to to not apply those principles corporately. It is this kind of disconnect between teaching and corporate behavior that can undermine what we teach and the difference we hope to see people's lives.

In conclusion

I believe that we as churches must learn to do more with less. We must focus on the mission of the church more than our own comforts or traditions. As one author once put it, "often real change in a church is brought about by a divine encounter with a spreadsheet." I would hope that more churches would heed the advice of a book like this and become more flexible, agile and able to be driven by mission and not held by under utilized resources or chained to the way things have always been done.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

What I've been reading - Disability and the Gospel

This is a book I've had on my to-read pile for some time. I hadn't gotten to it, not because I didn't want to read it but because I thought it would be hard to read. You see my son has Down Syndrome so this is far more than a passing academic discussion for me  how I reconcile the Gospel and disability looks me in the eye everyday. I found this book to really be a breath of fresh air. I think the greatest take away is that those with disabilities allow us to better reflect Christ as we serve those who by many standards cannot benefit us. They also remind us that we are all broken and all need to be restored. Personally I find that my son has a joy and an exuberance for life that we all need.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What I've been reading - Let's all be Brave by Annie Downs

I heard an interview with Annie Downs at some point, though I can't remember where. I do remember thinking my wife would really enjoy hearing and/or reading her so I picked up Annie's latest book "Let's all be Brave" The book had sat for a few months on the shelf until I picked it up a couple weeks ago and began reading it aloud to our family. I turns out our three year old will (mostly) quietly sit on mommy's lap and listen to daddy read. (our almost 2 year old just goes about his usual path of destruction) We have all been enjoying this time together, not only the reading together but reading this book together. The book is written as a series of letters and very conversational. Annie begins each chapter by indicating where and when it was written in the hope that we will have a better sense of where she was at as she wrote each chapter. Annie walks us through her own journey of becoming brave. I think it particular book really resonates with me because she tells of how she left her safe place, the small town she grew up in, and ventured out into the world, knowing only that God was leading her somewhere. She helps us see that sometimes being brave is simply taking the first step and trusting on the ones that follow. The book is easy to read and infused with humour and a ready down-to-earthness that is easy to relate to. Annie shares a message and encouragement that I think we all need at times, that we're all scared and all need to be brave.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What I've been reading - Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post Biblical times (A - Da)

Who doesn't like reading a good dictionary? I've read through many Bible Dictionaries and similar resources. The IVP Bible Dictionary series is still one of my go-to's but I've got to say this volume (and the 2 forthcoming) hits a very different segment of information. One of the interesting features is that you don't find many topics in here directly addressed or found in scripture but rather topics that provided a backdrop to many of the events found in scripture. The topics tend to be what the title indicates, items of daily life that simply fill in the background. With topics such as Aging, beards & shaving, banquets, child-birth and dancing one is given the colours to fill some of daily details of life in biblical times. One of the greatest features of this series has to be the price point. With the first volume under $20, one should be able to pick up the completed set for under $60. My understanding is the two subsequent volumes are scheduled for 2015 and 2016.