Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The 23rd Pastor (Excerpt from Chapter 2 "Shepherd")

In the second chapter of The 23rd Pastor, I write about the phrase, "The Lord is my shepherd," and apply that to pastoral life.  Here are some excerpts …


Maybe you remember one of John Denver’s biggest hits: “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy!”  I love the song, but I am no country boy.  I spent the first eight years of my life in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I did the rest of my growing up in Branson, Missouri.  I grew up in a city and a small town.  I never lived on Green Acres.  I visited a farm a time or two.  And while I have known some men who worked with cattle, I have never known a shepherd.  “The Lord is my rancher”—I could understand that a little better.  Ranchers raise cattle, brand the calves, move them from pasture to pasture, keep them watered, and when the time is right, they sell them to the highest bidder so they can make a living, and you and I can enjoy that ribeye or that hamburger.  Maybe that is why ranchers try not to get too attached to their cattle.  “The Lord is my rancher.”  No thanks.

 “The Lord is my shepherd.”  That’s better.


Without minimizing the importance of character and oversight in the pastor’s work, I am suggesting that the shepherd metaphor gives key direction to the work of a biblical pastor, especially a 23rd pastor.  The shepherd metaphor becomes the filter through which our character and oversight passes as we lead the congregations God entrusts to us.  Our character reflects the character of our Shepherd Lord—minus, of course, his sinlessness and perfection.  Even though Jesus may be blurred a bit by our faults, shepherd-pastors want the flock to see glimpses of Jesus in them.  We want to bear in our character his resemblance.  We want to offer our oversight through the heart of a shepherd, so we lead the flock rather than drive them, we love them rather than use them, we draw close to them rather than keep them at arm’s length, we get to know them rather than view them as a necessary nuisance to our work, and we consider what’s best for the flock rather than what’s best for us.  The good shepherd Jesus laid down his life for the sheep; sometimes we shepherd-pastors must lay down some things of our own to serve the flock with a shepherd’s care.

When we try to be a shop-keeper or CEO rather than a shepherd, our character and our oversight tends to reflect power rather than service, bottom-lines rather than relationships, self rather than Jesus.  In his book, They Smell Like Sheep, Lynn Anderson recounts an incident from some of his travels in the Holy Land.  Anderson and his local guide had spent part of a day traveling around the region learning about sheep and shepherds.  Late in the day, they observed a man cruelly driving a flock of sheep through the streets of a town.  This man yelled at the sheep and whacked them with a stick whenever they got out of line.  Although the sheep kept moving forward, they were visibly shaken.  Anderson commented to his guide that this harsh, driving man did not conform to the description of the kind, leading shepherd that his guide had given him throughout the day.  “Oh, that man’s not the shepherd,” his guide replied.  “That man’s the butcher.”[1]  Shepherd-pastors will never be confused with butchers.


I remember the first time I preached the ordination service for a pastor.  Mike Roy had grown up in the church I served in Greenwood, Missouri.  God called him to ministry.  And when he became pastor of a nearby church, he asked if I would preach the service.  I was honored to do so.  It was during this time that God had been working out this shepherd image in my heart.  That image drove the sermon whose title was “Be a Real Minister” and whose text was 1 Peter 5:1-5.  In encouraging Mike to shepherd his flock like Jesus shepherds us all, here is part of the charge I offered him that day:

Be a shepherd who nurtures a relationship to the flock through love.  Love the people with whom God calls you to work.  It’s not easy because some aren’t very easy to love, some don’t love us back, and some may even work against us.  Love them anyway.  Don't harangue them or abuse them.  Don't speak ill of them.  In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God.  A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God."[1]   You are part of them.  When you accuse them you accuse yourself.  So love them with a Christ-like love.  Love them by being with them.  Be with them when the baby comes.  Be with them when death barges in.  Be with them in the hospital and in the home, in the cemetery and in the study.  Be with them in good times and in bad.  Imagine them looking over your shoulder and whispering in your ear as you seek to hear in a Bible text the word they need to hear from God.  Keep them in your heart.  They will try you sometimes.  They may frustrate you often.  You will sometimes feel like throwing up your hands and shaking the dust off your feet.  They may even feel the same about you sometimes.  But keep them in your heart.  Feel for them what Paul felt for the Philippian church: “I long for you all,” he wrote to them, “with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:8).  Love them because of who they are—the bride of Christ, the church of the living God—and in spite of who they are—stubborn sinners, works in progress, but a work that God began and will continue until the day of Jesus Christ.  And in the midst of being with them, show them Christ and point them to him in all things—even when it’s hard and even when you don’t feel like it.  For the sheep in the flock and for those still outside, in all things and in every situation, point them to Christ.  Lean on the staff of the Chief Shepherd and he will help you.

            And, my shepherd-pastor friend, he will help you too.


The 23rd Pastor would make a good gift at Christmas for your pastor.  You can find it at Amazon.com.  Thanks.

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954), 29.

[1]Cited by Blaine McCormick and David Davenport, Shepherd Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 115.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The 23rd Pastor (Excerpt from chapter 1: "A Psalm for the Pastor's Journey")

The 23rd Pastor: Shepherding in the Spirit of Our Shepherd Lord released a couple of weeks ago on Amazon.com.  This is more than a how-to book; it's a book that tends to the pastor's soul.  I'm using my blog to share excerpts from the book.  Here's an excerpt from chapter 1: "A Psalm for the Pastor's Journey" …


A gnawing sense of Inadequacy is a daunting shroud that weighs upon a pastor’s ministry either paralyzing him into inaction or firing up nervous feet that send him running away from the pain and people he should be running toward.  “If only I could be more self-confident,” a pastor whispers to himself. 

No.  Psalm 23 reminds us that self-confidence is not what we need; God-confidence is what we need—confidence in “the Lord … with me … forever.”  Psalm 23 reminds us that our Shepherd Lord gives us everything we need in any situation when we lean into him.  His rod and staff, they comfort us.  If we need wisdom, God will give it.  If we need courage, God will give it.  If we need compassion, God will give it.  If we need words, God will give them.  It is important that we pastors prepare ourselves and equip ourselves for the broad and demanding nature of our work, but no pastor can be prepared for everything.  We don’t have to be—because we are not alone when we enter these situations.  Our Shepherd Lord is with us.  Experience breeds confidence.  Pastoral seasoning breeds confidence.  Training breeds confidence.  But nothing breeds more confidence in me than knowing my Shepherd Lord is leading me, is with me, and will be faithful to me all the way to the end as I depend on him.

In fact, this dependence on our Shepherd Lord can keep us from trying to play God, from trying to fix people or manage their lives in our feeble wisdom.  I have done my worst work when I have tried to fix people: “Listen to me.  Do this.  Don’t do that.”  Some people get helped, but most folks get frustrated because they either cannot or will not follow the counsel, and I get frustrated because they don’t take my “wise” advice.  (I sometimes wonder how many people I’ve messed up along the way.)  I do my best work when I point them not to myself but to the one true Shepherd Lord and his wisdom and resources.  If I can get their hands into the hand of Jesus, if I can get them wrestling their issues out in prayer and Scripture, he can lead them to green pastures, still waters, down righteous paths, and through the dark valley to a better place and a brighter day.  He can restore their soul.  He can get them all the way home.  I can’t.  The Lord can.

Early in my ministry, an older minister told me that I would be called upon to enter a lot of situations that are way over my head, situations where I would not know what to do.  He said, “You don’t have to know what to do, but you need to act like you do.”  This is a “fake it till you make it” approach to pastoral care.  It worked pretty well for me early in my ministry.  But it did not take too many years for me to realize I do not always have to know what to do, because Jesus knows what to do.  I have to know Jesus.  I have to trust my Shepherd Lord.  And when I find my confidence in him rather than in myself, he has a way of showing up and doing his thing in spite of my shortcomings.  That is my great hope as a 23rd pastor.


I encourage you to get your copy on Kindle or in paperback at Amazon.com.  Thanks!

Monday, November 5, 2018

The 23rd Pastor (Excerpts from the Introduction)

Okay, so I'm trying to promote my newly released book, The 23rd Pastor: Shepherding in the Spirit of Our Shepherd Lord.  Here are a couple of excerpts from the introduction …


I share this to suggest that a pastor in the classical sense—a shepherd pastor—can still pastor a growing church.  I understand that some of you are in churches that have little potential for growth.  Rural America and many of its small towns are dying.  Numerical growth is difficult to achieve in settings where population declines, schools consolidate or close, business dries up, Main Street looks like a boarded-up ghost town, young people move away, and the average age of residents increases.  If you pastor in a dying community, please don’t belittle your ministry.  And don’t think this book is not for you.  If God has called you in this season to shepherd a church whose average attendance numbers drop every year, you are there by God’s design to serve his purpose.  Give it all you’ve got.  Such churches and communities need a pastor who loves God and loves them.  And remember: churches can grow in numerous ways.  A church can grow in unity, in generosity, in mission vision and involvement, in community ministry, in development and deployment of the members’ spiritual gifts, in biblical understanding, and in faithfulness.  If you pastor in a community where numerical growth is not likely, shepherd the church toward whatever health and growth look like in your setting.  I was glad that when the 80s rolled into the 90s, the language and discussion moved from “church growth” to “church health.”  If you can shepherd your church into health, the church will grow in the ways it needs to grow and has the capacity to grow.  Unless you see the name Ichabod[1] written across the front door of your church building, don’t give up.  God hasn’t written off you or the church you serve.  Don’t you write them off either.    

And if you are in a situation where the potential for numerical growth is more realistic, shepherd the church toward growth in healthy ways.  Avoid slick strategies.  Seek the glory of God before rising numbers.  Shepherd your people toward passionate worship, persevering prayer, evangelism, ministry, authenticity, extravagant giving, and genuine love for God and people.  Shepherd in these ways, and God will grow the church in non-numerical ways that will likely lead to rising numbers as well.  Such numerical growth will be organic rather than contrived or manipulated.  It will be the result of relationships and the wooing of the Holy Spirit rather than the latest church attendance fad of the day.  That is how God has grown the two churches I have shepherded. 

[1]1 Samuel 4:21. 


Across the years, I have found nurture and instruction for my pastoral work in David’s words about the Lord’s shepherd work.  The psalm has inspired me to be a 23rd pastor—aware of the vast expanse of the field, yet attentive to the central tasks of the work, a pastor who leads and nurtures in the name and wisdom of the One who leads and nurtures him.

This is a needed reminder.  General observation leads me to believe that the new generation of pastors does not receive much training or encouragement in classic pastoral practices.  And plenty of mid-lifers and old-timers like me, in the weariness of decades of ministry, may have forgotten a few things along the way.  Worse yet, some longtime pastors have decided to lean their rod and staff in a corner, take their ease, and meander their way into retirement, leaving the flock to fend for themselves.  We can do better.  God expects better.  Tend the flock.  Feed the sheep.  That’s what shepherd pastors do.  And the church needs more of them.  There are times when I feel like a dying breed—a pastoral relic, a marred statue in the museum of pastoral history, a throwback Thursday pastor every day of the week.  There is so much emphasis these days on church planting, church revitalization, and niche churches that most of the training involves leadership skills, vision development, organizational structure, and outreach strategies for reaching a church’s target demographic.  But whether you pastor First Church or Split Church or Biker Church or Hispanic Church or Cowboy Church or Duck Dynasty Church or Homeless Church, the people still need a pastor, and the pastor still needs the Shepherd Lord.  The church will be forever blessed if this breed of pastor never dies.

I am writing this book to keep this breed of pastor alive and well.  I also want to dispel any ideas that a shepherd pastor is a passive pastor, timid to do much more than dry some tears, hold some hands, and try to keep the flock happy.  Shepherd pastors certainly dry tears and hold hands, but they also lead, challenge, and grow the flock in healthy ways.  Shepherd pastors are quick to pat their sheep on the head and willing to take their staff and poke their sheep in the flank when necessary.  Shepherd pastors are anything but passive.  Shepherd pastors lead their flock like Jesus leads his.  Frederick Buechner wrote some words that have made me smile and also haunted me a bit since I read them: “There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him.”[1]  I do not want God to “survive” my ministry.  I want God to thrive in my ministry, in the church I serve, and in me.  Most pastors I know want that too.  And that best happens when we learn to shepherd God’s church under the presence, blessing, leadership, and guidance of our Chief Shepherd Jesus.

[1]Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 187.


If you find that intriguing, I encourage you check out the book via paperback or Kindle (you have to search them separately at Amazon.com.  Thanks.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The 23rd Pastor

For the last few years I’ve been thinking of writing a book on pastoral life based on Psalm 23.  My dream has become reality with the publication of The 23rd Pastor: Shepherding in the Spirit of Our Shepherd Lord.  This is not just another how-to book on pastoring.  The book includes some elements of how I go about my pastoral work, but this is a book for the pastor’s soul.  The book combines a lifetime of love for the psalms and for this psalm in particular with my love for pastoring the church.  I take each phrase of the psalm and consider its implications for the pastoral life based on how the Good Shepherd shepherds us.

You’ll see what I mean with the Table of Contents:

1 – A Psalm for the Pastor’s Journey

2 – Shepherd: The Lord is my shepherd

3 – Contentment: I shall not want

4 – Rest: He makes me lie down in green pastures …

5 – Devotion: He restores my soul

6 – Righteousness: He leads me in paths of righteousness …

7 – Shadow: Even though I walk through the valley …

8 – Enemies: You prepare a table before me …

9 – Calling: You anoint my head with oil

10 – Blessing: My cup runs over

11 – Pursuit: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me …

12 – Forever: And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever

I deal seriously with the Scriptures.  I tell stories.  I try encourage, challenge, and inspire newbies and seasoned pastors to be the shepherd God called them to be.  I hope you’ll check it out in paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com.  Thanks!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Quotable Peterson: Pastoral Work

I saw a Twitter post the other day asking for favorite Eugene Peterson quotes.  Well, some of those would would take more than the 280 characters Twitter allows.  I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written so I have a lot of quotes.  Perhaps I’ll do a couple of blog posts.  This post focuses on some of my favorite quotes on pastoral life.  Pastors will appreciate these quotes.  But non-pastors might find them educational as well …


America’s pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate.  They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs.  Congregations still pay their salaries.  Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays.  But they are abandoning their posts, their calling.  They have gone whoring after other gods.  What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.   Working the Angles

I had never articulated it just this way before.  “You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed.  To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way.  A certain blessed anonymity is inherent in pastoral work.  For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed.  Many years earlier a pastor friend told me that the pastoral ego ‘has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self.’”  The Pastor: A Memoir

Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work.  It is like farm work.  Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds.  This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.  Under the Predictable Plant

So sinner becomes not a weapon in an arsenal of condemnation, but the expectation of grace.  Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry.  But to see people as sinnersas rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way—that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”  The Contemplative Pastor

It is not the pastor’s job to simplify the spiritual life, to devise common-denominator formulas, to smooth out the path of discipleship.  Some difficulties are inherent in the way of spiritual growth – to deny them, to minimize them, or to offer shortcuts is to divert the person from true growth.  It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow.  Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work

Most pastoral work takes place in obscurity: deciphering grace in the shadows, searching out meaning in a difficult text, blowing on the embers of a hard-used life.  This is hard work and not conspicuously glamorous.  Under the Predictable Plant

The pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the “image of God,” a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything.  The Pastor: A Memoir

Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command, promise and invitation.  The Contemplative Pastor

In the disordered time in which we live, pastors can’t get along without [psychologists] Dr. Wall and Dr. Hansen.  But their work is not my work.  Knowing they are there to do their work, I am free to do my work.  And my work is not to fix people.  It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them in living a holy life.  The Pastor: A Memoir


There are so many more quotes I’ve gathered in my files, but these are enough for now.  Worth chewing on.  Worth considering.  Worth practicing.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Did God Ever Do Me a Favor!

I knew he couldn’t live forever.  But I sure hate to see him go.  I’m writing about the best pastor I ever had but never met: Eugene Peterson.  He died on Monday.  And here’s the irony of that for me: I was leading a pastors’ conference and giving away some of his books on pastoring.  I preached that day on the pastor as shepherd and quoted him twice in my sermon.  And here’s another irony: I’ve written a book for pastors (The 23rd Pastor: Shepherding in the Spirit of our Shepherd Lord) that should be released in a few days.  And in the introduction, I wrote these words: 

While I have learned from the pastors I served with on staff and from some of my pastor friends, two key mentors have kept me grounded in my pastoral work across more than three decades.  The first is a Presbyterian named Eugene Peterson.  He, more than anyone else, has taught me what it means to be a pastor.  Peterson’s books should be essential reading for every pastor and everyone who feels called to become a pastor.  (If you have never read one of his books, you should put this one down and go read one of his first.)

I learned a lot from and am forever grateful to the handful of men who pastored me until I became a pastor in 1982.  But no one taught me more about pastoring than Eugene Peterson.  Peterson founded Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, and pastored that church for 29 years.  He retired to teach Spiritual Theology at Regent College for another six years.  He wrote a lot across the years.  I’ve read most everything he wrote.  And I am a better Christian and a better pastor because of it.

My first encounter with his work was in the 80s, and man did I need him then.  I was pastoring a growing church in suburban Kansas City.  Those were the days of the church growth movement, and our church was busting at the seams.  He arrested me immediately on the first page of his book Working the Angles:

America’s pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate.  They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs.  Congregations still pay their salaries.  Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays.  But they are abandoning their posts, their calling.  They have gone whoring after other gods.  What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches.  They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers.  They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations.  Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same.

Busted!  Humbled.  Put in my place.  I was becoming a shopkeeper, not a pastor.  Through the book, I learned the three angles that have historically been at the heart of pastoral ministry: Scripture, prayer, and spiritual direction.  I learned how to pastor a growing church without abandoning my calling.  I am indebted to Peterson for that, and the two congregations I’ve served have been better-shepherded because of him.

But it’s not just his books on pastoring that have had influence in my life.  His work with the Psalms and with David’s life have made a difference too.  I did my doctoral project on “Using the Psalms as a Guide to Corporate and Individual Prayer.”  As part of the project I wrote a devotional book on praying the psalms.  I was told I needed an outside evaluator on the book.  I took a big chance and wrote a letter asking Peterson to be that evaluator.  He quickly responded with a nice, handwritten letter, telling me that as much as he’d like to, his work at the college kept him from being able to take on any outside projects.  Then he wrote a few sentences commending me on my project, encouraging me, and wishing me well.  I don’t know how he did it, but I’ve never felt better about being told “No” in my life.

A number of years later, I was on the verge of burning out.  Knowing my admiration of Peterson, a staff member, Mike Pounders, went to a lot of trouble to get in touch with Peterson.  Imagine my shock when I was given his cell number and invited to call him.  We talked 15 or 20 minutes—well, I talked, he mostly listened.  And invited me to come stay for a few days with he and Jan in his Montana home.  He said I could relax there, and we could visit.  He said he did that a couple of times of years for people in his larger congregation (people like me).  He could do that in about six months, he said.  He told me to keep his number and call him to set up a time.  I was an idiot.  I don’t know if I was starstruck or to overwhelmed to take him up on the offer.  I blew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend personal time with one of my heroes.  I’ll regret that till I die.

He sent a nice note on my 20th anniversary as pastor at First Baptist, Hot Springs.  And I continued to read his writings: always challenged, always encouraged, always learning something, always growing in my faith.

I’m going to miss him.  He will still live in on my shelves and in my work.  And I suspect I’ll keep his cell phone number in my contacts till I die.

But now I’ll have to wait to meet him personally till I get to the other side.  I know I’ll have to wait in a long line, but I will not blow my next opportunity to meet the man in person and to thank him for the many ways his work shaped my spiritually and pastorally.  And when I talk to Jesus, I’ll tell him in person what I’ve already told him in prayer: “You did a lot of us a favor when you made Eugene Peterson.  I thank you.  And the churches I’ve served thank you too.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Gary: My Role Model for Ministry

October is Pastor Appreciation Month.  Not sure how I feel about that really.  October is also Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, Apple Jack Month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Popcorn Popping Month, and Sarcastic Month.  I suppose we are all so busy that if we don’t have something to remind us, we’ll forget to appreciate most things.

But all that aside, could I say a word about the first Baptist pastor I ever had.  His name is Dr. Gary Fenton.  He wasn’t yet Dr. Fenton when he was my pastor.  He was fresh out of seminary and in his mid-20s then.  He was nine years my elder.  And he made an impact in my life.  He is the pastor who baptized me, counseled me in regard to my call to ministry, gave me the opportunity to preach my first sermon, and preached my ordination sermon a couple of years later.  Dayna and I would have liked for him to officiate our wedding too, but First Baptist, Branson, had a new pastor then, Gilbert Spencer, and we wanted to affirm Gil's ministry too.

Gary was a pastoral mentor to me.  He’s one of the few pastors I’ve known in my life who is the complete package.  The man can preach, provide shepherd care for his people, and lead the church toward its mission.  I worked for him for him during my first college summer at First Baptist in Branson.  He took time to talk with me about Bible texts and commentaries.  I watched how he related to people with compassion and love—all kinds of people too, not just the power people and the largest donors.  He was accessible.  And Gary was the hardest working pastor I ever knew.

From the moment of my call to ministry, I knew God wanted me to be a pastor.  I served in staff roles about five years before God gave me my first pastorate, but I knew the pastorate is where God was leading me all the time.  And here’s one thing I distinctly remember from the year or two Gary was my pastor: I wanted to pastor like Gary.  He set a high bar I strived to reach.  I’ve never reached his bar just yet but striving for it—striving to be a good preacher, a good shepherd for the people, and a good leader—has made me a better pastor than I would have been without Gary’s influence.

Last week, we were able to have Gary preach revival services in the church.  He’s recently retired.  It was great to spend some time with him.  Dayna and I treasure the moments we shared together with Gary during those few days in Hot Springs.  And even though I turned 62 during that revival, Gary is still teaching me and mentoring me in ministry.

So in this Pastor Appreciation Month, I want to say, “Thank you, God, for Gary Fenton, a man after your heart, the man who helped me begin my journey toward pastoral ministry, and a man whose fingerprints are on every good thing you’ve ever done in my nearly four decades of pastoring!  And thank you, Gary, for investing in a nobody from nowhere who had nothing to offer you in return except an eagerness to serve Jesus and to learn.”

Peter concludes a brief word to pastors in his 1st letter in the New Testament by writing, "And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory."  There's a crown waiting for Gary.  And he's going to look really good in it.    

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Granddaddy, I Never Knew Ye

I never knew a grandfather.  My mother’s dad was killed in a hunting accident when my mother was six-years-old.  That was 1934.  She barely knew him.  I never had the chance.  My father’s dad also died a violent death.  He was City Marshal in Lake Village, Arkansas, when he answered a disturbance call in a local cafĂ© to deal with a man who was drunk and disorderly.  Tragically, he was also armed.  He shot and killed my granddaddy on the spot.  That happened in 1928.  My dad was only 14 at the time.

On the way back from the beach, Dayna and I passed through Lake Village, Arkansas.  That’s where my dad’s family settled in the 1920s when they left the farm in Union Church, Mississippi.  My grandfather and grandmother are buried there—as is the uncle for whom I’m named.  I’ve passed through Lake Village a few times across the years, but I never visited the cemetery.  This time I did.  I wanted to visit my granddaddy’s grave.  I’ve visited the grave of my mother’s father numerous times.  My mother is buried in the same family plot.  But I’d never visited the grave of my Granddaddy Samuel Tucker McCallum.

Dayna and I made the short drive to the local cemetery though we had no idea where his grave was.  We figured it would be in the oldest part of the cemetery.  We weren’t there two minutes till Dayna spotted it.  We walked to the graves and stood over them.  I took a couple of pictures.

I so wish I had known him.  He was obviously a man who loved his family and his community.  He was a man of courage and a man of faith.  I share his name.  But I never met him.  Never heard his voice.  Never felt his touch.  Never sat in his lap.  All I know of him is what I learned from his six children.

My life has been diminished, I think, because I never knew him.  My father had his issues, and once my parents were divorced we didn’t see him much for the rest of his life.  It would have been nice to have had a positive male role model in my life.  A grandfather would have fit the bill nicely.  But it wasn’t to be.

I have two consolations in this matter.  First, God has given me the pleasure of being granddaddy to seven grandchildren.  No one is going to vote me “Grandfather of the Year,” but I think I add to the quality of my grandchildren’s lives.  They surely add to the quality of mine.  I was never grandfathered, but I’ve had the opportunity to grandfather my grandkids.  I’ve enjoyed that experience from one side anyway.  That’s a consolation.

And so is this.  My grandfather is a believer.  He loved Jesus and trusted him for salvation.  He is with Jesus now.  And when it comes my time to join him on the other side, I will have plenty of time to get to know him.  There are many on the other side I so look forward to seeing again.  Strange that I may look most forward to meeting a man I never saw for the first time.  Right now, that meeting feels a little awkward, but in that moment, it will probably feel as comfortable as a feather bed.  That’s a consolation too.

Granddaddy, I never knew ye.  But because of what Jesus has done for us both, because of his death and resurrection, and because Jesus is the resurrection and the life, that’s going to change.  I’ll be too big to sit in your lap, but I look forward to hearing your stories and sharing with you how your faith continued to thrive in the generations that followed you.  I hope you’ll feel like I carried your name well—your two names actually: McCallum and Christian.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Is It Okay to Re-Preach a Sermon?

It’s summer.  The time of year when pastors and church members go on vacation.  Most churches slump a bit in attendance.  Most pastors try to catch their breath.  So what to preach?  A lot of pastors I know who come up with a good sermon series idea for the year, don’t look to preach that series in the summer.  They want maximum hearing and maximum impact.  Even in the days of live-streaming, it’s hard to get that in the summer.  So it begs the question: is it okay to preach a sermon you’ve preached before?

I’ve been preaching every Sunday since 1981, and I admit that I don’t re-preach much from those early years of preaching.  That’s when I was still trying to find my voice.  But by the same token, I have preached sermons several times from the shell of a handful of my earliest preaching even though I’m not sure some of my earliest preaching was worth preaching the first time.  God, who makes something out of nothing, used it then; God can still make something of it now even if it bears little resemblance to the original.  But is it okay to do this?  Does it break some kind of preacher-code of ethics?  Does God roll his eyes and think, “Oh no, not that again.  It’s a good thing I never sleep or slumber, or that sermon would put me in a coma.”   

So far as I know, God doesn’t weigh in on re-preaching sermons.  But others do, and some think it’s anathema: “God isn’t stuck in the past.  He has a new word for the church.  Listen for that word and preach it!”  True.  But that doesn’t mean a pastor can’t re-preach a sermon from the past.  Isn’t God the one who can make all things new?  Can’t a word that God used in the past, be a word he can use in the present?  It seems to me the Bible is a word like that.  Why would God give a preacher a sermon that only has a 30-minute shelf life?  It is not anathema to preach a sermon you’ve preached before.  It could be wisdom.

Sometimes pastors are hesitant to re-preach sermons because we overestimate the power of our sermons.  We assume people remember it.  I hate to bust your bubble, but they probably don’t.  When I’m sorting through older sermon titles, I can’t even remember what most of the sermons were about, and I spent hours preparing it.  The folks won’t either.  They tend to remember novelty sermons and transforming stories but not the meat and potatoes of our Sunday to Sunday preaching.  I know this from experience.  I’ve had a man say to me, “You’re preaching just seems to keep getting stronger and stronger.”  I hate to disappoint him and tell him that I preached that same sermon or that same series in 2009.  I’ve had a woman say to me, “That may be the best sermon I’ve ever heard you preach.”  I hate to disappoint her and tell her that she heard me preach that sermon in 2006.  People hear sermons through the lens of their current experience and needs.  We read that Bible that way, finding things in old texts we never noticed the 37 times we’d read it previously.  People hear sermons the same way.  Oh, and every church has a few members who record next to your text in their Bible the date you preached a sermon on that text, right?  I’ve had one man in particular who will approach me after the service, smile, and say, “You preached that sermon on May 3, 2005.”  I smile and reply, “Did you remember it?”  He smiles and says, “No.”

I have re-preached numerous sermons and some series over the years.  I’ve only served two churches in 37 years: one for about 14 years and one for 23 years.  If you serve a church for only 3-5 years, re-preaching a sermon has different challenges.  But I want to advocate the re-preaching of sermons from time to time—especially in the summer time or on holiday weekends.  And if you serve in one place long enough, even some repetition in Advent or Lenten/Easter preaching can be a helpful thing for pastor and church.

In my view, it’s okay to re-preach some of your sermons now and then.  If you’re thinking of re-preaching a sermon or a series, here are a few tips:

Be prayerful about the process.  Don’t just pull a sugar-stick; think: what does God want to say to the church?

Keep good records of past sermons.  I always record date and place preached on every sermon manuscript and in my sermon file.

If it doesn’t light a fire in you, it won’t light a fire in your people.  Leave it on the shelf.

Make necessary tweaks and changes: Do you think a bit differently about the text than you did when you preached the sermon the first time?  (If you’ve got a new commentary on that text, check it out.) Are the illustrations (stories, stats, figures of speech) out of date? Do applications need to change to fit the current situation in your church and community?  Necessary tweaks will make the sermon feel new to you and to one or two in the congregation who remember it. (By the way, if you’re re-preaching a sermon you preached in your previous congregation, make sure you adapt it to your current situation.)

How could I make more of Jesus in the sermon?  Is there a different or better gospel connection you can make this time around?

Don’t be afraid to use compelling sermons from a series as stand-alone sermons when you need them.

Early in my pastoral ministry, I heard Calvin Miller (a great preacher, longtime pastor, and preaching author/professor) say, “I never preach a new sermon in the summer.  I go back at least five years, find something relevant for the current day, rework it a bit, and serve it as fresh as I did the first time around.”  Miller went on to say that the hours he saves on sermon prep in the summer he uses to plan his future preaching schedule and do some more reading and learning.  Miller was a wise pastor and preacher.  I want to be one too.

What do you think, pastor?  And for you folks who listen to sermons rather than preach them, what do you think about a pastor re-preaching a sermon?

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Graduation Prayer

I attended the graduation ceremony for Ouachita Baptist University a week ago.  (Go Tigers!)  I was pinch-hitting for the Chairman of the Ouachita Board who couldn’t make it.  My one responsibility was to say a prayer over the graduates.  Several people have since asked me for a copy of that prayer.  That has motivated me to post that prayer to my blog.

So, in this graduation season, here is a prayer that might spark your own prayers for the graduates you know and love …


Father, thank you for Ouachita Baptist University.  Thank you for faithful faculty administration and staff who love the students and work for their best.  Thank you for these graduates and for the education they’ve received and the lifelong friendships they’ve forged here.

Lord, as these graduates commence into their future, would you give them …
·         gratitude enough to remember from whence they’ve come
·         dreams enough to discern and live the great dream you have for each one
·         courage enough to try new things
·         skills enough to succeed
·         persistence enough to stay with it
·         joy enough to stay positive
·         friends enough to know they’re not in their journey alone
·         wisdom enough to give their lives to kingdom things that last forever
·         hunger and thirst enough to keep them in Scripture and prayer and righteousness and   church
·         trouble enough to keep them always leaning into you
·         peace enough to rest in you
·         hope enough not to let disappointments get them down for long
·         love enough to be a blessing to many
·         faith enough to keep their eyes on Jesus in good times and in bad
·         and desire enough to do all they do for your great glory.

And now, Jesus, as they launch into the next steps of their lives, please go before them as leader and guide, behind them as redeemer and love, above them as provider and guard, below them, as supporter and strength, beside them as companion and friend, and within them as Savior and Lord.  In your name, amen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Mother's Day Prayer

For the first time in I can’t remember when, I didn’t preach on Mother’s Day.  We focused on the issues of foster care and adoption, so our Youth Pastor, Bill Newton, whose family provides foster care, seemed like the right person to preach the sermon.  For me it would have been words alone.  For Bill it was word and life experience.  He did a great job.  Our congregation will grow in our commitment to foster kids and support those who do.

So I didn’t preach, but I prayed.  I spent some time fashioning a prayer for Mother’s Day.  Rarely have I had more people comment on a prayer.  I struck a nerve in some.  And I think I know why.  If your family is healthy, Mother’s Day is a great day.  If your family is hurting, Mother’s Day is a day you just want ignore or survive.  I loved my mother and she loved me, but our relationship wasn't perfect.  She was probably the most formative influence in my life, most of it good.  But our relationship was a bit complicated by family circumstances and our own stubbornness.  Mother's Day stirred a variety of emotions in me, not all of them the best kind.  So I tried to pray the range of emotions people brought with them to worship.  Here’s my prayer.  I hope it encourages you.


We thank you, Father God, that you understand mothering too.  We thank you for the image in Isaiah where you described yourself as shepherd holding your lambs near your bosom.  And we thank you for that time where Jesus wept over Jerusalem and said, “How I have longed to gather you under my wings as a hen gathers her chicks.”  You understand mothering too.  You sure picked a good one for your son Jesus.

So, on this Mother’s Day we remember our mothers in prayer. 

For those who know the joy of motherhood and find parenting a delight, we ask that you deepen their joy.

For those who long to be mothers, yet for whatever reason cannot, we pray that you would help them fill their empty arms with a child somehow, some way.

For those who are brokenhearted over wayward children, children who died too soon, or the grief of miscarriage, we pray for comfort, peace, and the confidence that you do all things well and can bring good out of sorrow.

For those who have fostered and adopted children, caring for the least of these, may they find joy in doing for those children what you do and have done for us.  Give them patience and understanding, and peace.

For single moms who feel like the carry the whole load of parenting, please give them strength made perfect in their weakness, and the auxiliary help they need.

For those who are challenged by difficult children marked by disabilities or behavioral problems, we pray for wisdom, insight, patience, perseverance, and a sense of your presence in their struggle.  Please give such mothers enough victories to keep them joyful in their parenting.

And we also pray this morning for those for whom Mother’s Day is a difficult day.  Some are missing their mothers who have passed in death.  Others have difficult relationships with their mothers—relationships that make everything from picking the right card to making a Mother’s Day phone call a chore and a burden rather than a joy.  And still others have mothers that are difficult to honor and recognize on this day.  We pray that those for whom this day is hard will find your peace and mercy and strength to face their difficulties with faith.

So thank you again, our Father, for this day and for its meaning.  We pray that you’ll bless all women and make us a blessing to them.  In Jesus’ name, Amen