Transforming Church: Bringing Out the Good to Get to Great

Every pastor I know wants to make a difference. Every church leader I know wants his or her church to thrive. Every church I know wants to bring the kingdom of God to their community, region, and beyond.

So with all this godly desire, why isn't that happening for such good, conscientious people? I think Kevin Ford's book, Transforming Church: Bringing Out the Good to Get to Great, compellingly answers that question, and gives hope and direction for "getting to great."

Over and over as I read Transforming Church, I found myself nodding at depictions and dilemmas that are all too familiar from my thirty-plus years of ministry to four growing churches. Ford, who writes from the perspective of an experienced consultant to churches, says, "This book is about churches that have the courage to embrace change and to confront adaptive issues head on--what I call transforming churches." He identifies five common, crippling dysfunctions of unhealthy churches (which correspond, not coincidentally at all, to dysfunctions in Western culture) and contrasts them with their healthy opposites:
  • How church members relate to one another (consumerism vs. community)
  • The church's "genetic code," often unwritten and even unacknowledged (incongruence vs. code)
  • The church's leadership culture (autocracy vs. shared leadership)
  • How the church relates to the surrounding community (cloister vs. missional)
  • How church members see the future (inertia vs. reinvention)
With numerous examples from one church after another, Transforming Church shows how these unhealthy/healthy characteristics operate in real life, and even offers readers a free diagnostic tool ( to measure their churches against the principles mentioned in the book.

The book's tone can be a little "consultanty" (a word I just made up), but it is so full of stories-that-ring-true and information-that-makes-sense, it should be devoured by every church leader and applied to every church. It would have made a huge difference in every church I have served, and I sincerely pray that it will find universal acceptance among the churches, leaders, and pastors I know.

My Vacation Reading

My vacation reading this coming week:

It might seem a tad ambitious, given the length of The Goldfinch, but I'm half done with it as vacation begins, so it looks more ambitious than it really is. The other books are Chasing Fireflies (in audiobook), Astonished, and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?

Simple Sermon Outline: Prayer That Fills You Up

Last week the Desperate Pastor blog introduced a new series of posts, "Simple Sermon Outlines" for the hardworking pastor who takes seriously the task of breaking the Bread of Life to God's people but is sometimes up against a wall and fresh out of ideas. The outlines posted here will be simple and sparse, in the hope that they will ignite (not replace) the process of prayer, study, and creativity.

This week's entry is based on a chapter in my newest book, The Red Letter Life" 17 Words from Jesus to Inspire Simple, Practical, Purposeful Living. It suggests twelve tips (yes, twelve--you got a problem with that?) for prayer, drawing from the Lord's Prayer:
Prayer That Fills You Up
Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4

Pray Communally ("Our")

Pray Relationally ("Father")

Pray Confidently (because our Father is "in heaven," ruling over all)

Pray Respectfully ("Let Your name be kept holy")

Pray Cooperatively ("Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven")

Pray Specifically ("Give us...bread")

Pray Practically ("Give us the bread we need today")

Pray Contritely ("Forgive us our sins")

Pray Graciously ("As we forgive those who have wronged us")

Pray Submissively ("Lead us")

Pray Purposefully ("Not into temptation, but deliver us from evil")

Pray Worshipfully ("For yours is the kingdom, power, and glory forever")

You Probably Will Not Like My Church

I saw this fascinating (and sad, so sad) screenshot on the "Stuff Fundies Like" Blog recently. Apparently Liberty Baptist Church wants to make sure you know you're probably not going to like their church unless you're already a member...and maybe not even then:
I mean, I believe in clear communication and letting people know what to expect. But whoever wrote that needs to get back on their medication, asap.

But it got me thinking. What would a similar disclaimer look like for my ideal church? Maybe something like this:
You probably will not like First Bobtist Church. 
We love Jesus. A lot. More than our traditions. Even more than Krispy Kreme donuts, which we serve every Sunday. Free. With really good coffee. But coffee and Krispy Kremes help us love Jesus even more.

We don't try to please everybody, but we make no apology for trying to make newcomers, visitors, skeptics, and seekers comfortable, even if that makes our own long-time members uncomfortable. We'd like to think that actual Christ-followers have matured enough after decades in the church to reflect Christ-like values of hospitality, kindness, and self-sacrifice. It may not be true, but we like to think it.

We're against being against a lot of stuff. We are so busy being for the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, the poor, the single moms and dads, the grieving, sick, forgotten, widows, and orphans, that we don't do much "againsting." But when we do, we're against it.

We love the Bible, but we don't worship it. We read it, study it, and pray it. But we are not afraid of good scholarship, honest questions, or sincere doubt.

We're not always sure we're right. We're probably more often sure we're not. And we mess up. A whole lot. But we do our best to give each other the same grace we receive from God in Christ.

We like drums. Good, loud drums. And bass, lots of it. We may sing a hymn, sometimes, but our music may also include classical, jazz, or bluegrass--even the blues, depending on how good or bad the preaching is. But we will never sing, "Victory in Jesus." We just won't.  
We stand unapologetically for love. We believe in: Love God, love all, love much.
If your standards are low enough to put up with us, we will have no trouble extending a warm and gracious welcome to you. 

The Pastor's Desk (Episode 31)

The latest episode in the recurring feature, "The Pastor's Desk," here on the Desperate Pastor blog is that of Rev. Karen Montgomery, lead pastor at the North Lewisburg United Methodist Church, North Lewisburg, Ohio. I knew her when she was just a wee pup, even before she served on the staff of the Oxford United Methodist Church in Oxford, Ohio.
She clearly subscribes to the "clean desk, clean mind" school of thought. Wesley would be proud.

(If you would like to participate in this recurring feature on the Desperate Pastor blog, submit a single photo of a pastor's study, office, or desk--but no tidying up before taking the picture, mind you--to, along with a short description identifying to whom it belongs)

Simple Sermon Outline: How to Change the World

I only know a few pastors who aren't desperate pastors. There's just so much to being a pastor, and there aren't enough hours in the day or days in the week. Or volunteers in the church.

So I thought, to make things a little easier, I'd inaugurate a new series of posts here on the Desperate Pastor blog--sermon outlines for the hardworking pastor who takes seriously the task of breaking the Bread of Life to God's people but is sometimes up against a wall and fresh out of ideas. They will be simple and sparse, in the hope that they will ignite (not replace) the process of prayer, study, and creativity.

The first in the series:
How to Change the World

Prayer (Acts 1:14)

Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)

Proclamation (Acts 2:14)

Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

"I do not know much about God and prayer," writes Anne Lamott in her book, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. "But I have come to believe, over the last twenty-five years, that there's something to be said about keeping prayer simple."

True to her belief, in Help Thanks Wow, Lamott has written a simple book about keeping prayer simple. Like all of her writings, this book is honest, charming, and thoughtful. It is not a how-to volume, but three short and readable essays that ought to encourage heartfelt, effective prayer in anyone. She may be more expansive or indistinct in her believing, praying, and writing than some would like (referring to God sometimes as "Her" or "Him or Her," for example), but as an unabashed Anne Lamott fan, I find her style and tone unfailingly infectious. I find myself nodding when she writes, "I ask that God's will be done, and I mostly sort of mean it." I feel like I'm on solid ground right next to her when she cites "the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little." That's Gospel. And I cannot suppress a smile of appreciation and agreement when I read, "God's idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter." That's Gospel, too.

At a mere 102 pages in a small format, Help Thanks Wow is a short and easy read, and--like all of Lamott's writings--delightful and encouraging.

The Social Media Handbook

I've said it before (here and here and here), and I will surely say it again: Pastors and churches must learn to use social media, and they must do it well.

Well, help is here. The Social Media Handbook: Church Edition is written specifically with church leaders in mind, to take pastors, leaders, and churches to the next level on social media.

It covers topics like:

  • Theology of social media
  • Creating a strategy
  • Staff policies
  • Maintaining a relevant voice
  • Content curation
  • Adapting to change
  • and more

The Social Media Handbook: Church Edition ebook launches on June 24th, but you can pre-order now and receive a special bonus, The Essential Social Media Content Strategy Guide, a solid reference that equips readers with some quick wins in crafting content that resonates with their audience.

Time Management for Church Leaders

Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittian are the brains behind the "Only 4 Things Grow Churches" tour (discover more here). They recently wrote a fine blog post that starts out this way:
One of top questions we’ve heard during the Only Four Things Grow Churches tour has to do with the allocation of the pastor’s time. When we suggest that a pastor leading a church of under 450 needs to spend between 70 – 80 percent of their time networking with the unchurched, the grumbling becomes audible and the hands shoot up.
What am I supposed to stop doing?
How do I convince my board?
What about ________?
So, in a nutshell here are some of the things a pastor needs to let go of in order to implement their time reprioritization.
They go on to list six things, including "office hours" and "hospital visitation" (read the whole thing here). I think they're right, although in all my years as a pastor I only succeeded in one or two of the things they list (though I fought hard for them at times). See what you think.

Ken Davis on Dunkin Donuts

This is one of the funniest things I've ever heard. I think of it every time I pass a Dunkin Donuts. Also, every time I DON'T make it past.

The Lord and His Prayer

When I was writing my latest book, The Red Letter Life: 17 Words from Jesus to Inspire Simple, Practical, Purposeful Living, I probably most enjoyed writing chapter 7, "The Word That Opens Heaven." It focuses on Jesus' words on prayer, and elaborates a bit on the Lord's Prayer. It was amazing to me as I studied and prepared for--and then wrote--that chapter, how rich and deep that short prayer is, and how much we can learn from it. And how much could and should be written about it.

So it is with The Lord and His Prayer, by N. T. Wright. The book is a mere 89 pages long, and yet it is at least as deep as it is long. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and one of the world's foremost theologians today, presents just six chapters that masterfully blend sophisticated theological insights with simple devotional inspiration:

  1. Our Father in Heaven
  2. Thy Kingdom Come
  3. Give Us This Day
  4. Forgive Us Our Trespasses
  5. Deliver Us From Evil
  6. The Power and the Glory

Such familiar phrases. Yet Wright sheds new light on each of them and shows how they are more revolutionary and more life-altering than we--even those of us who pray them regularly, even daily--have ever before understood or experienced.

One of the many things Wright does so expertly is to connect familiar Scripture with other familiar Scripture and, also supplying the historical, cultural, philosophical, and theological context of each, thus uncover deeper layers of meaning. He does it again in this slim volume, showing how the Lord and his prayer reveal "the disgraceful Advent of our astonishing God."

It is a necessary book on prayer, and a beautiful one, too.

The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches

Thom Rainer's blog is one of many I read regularly; I recommend it. Recently he posted "The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches." Bet you can't guess what it is.

Or maybe you can.

He says he sees "a simple but profound pattern among the declining churches":
Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.

The ministries are only for the members. The budgetary funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of the members. The times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get things their way. You get the picture.
He's right, of course (as he is about most things). He goes on to offer eight symptoms of the declining church, as well as to offer hope for churches and leaders who want to reverse the downward trend.

Read the whole thing here.

7 Keys to Staying Married in Ministry

Today is the thirty-seventh wedding anniversary for me and the lovely Robin. It's hard to believe. Crazy.

While our marriage and family life haven't been without a struggle here or there (which were all my fault; that's my story and I'm sticking with it), our love hasn't just survived the challenges that come with being married while in ministry; it has grown and deepened along the way--to the extent that I list our marriage as a major ministry success (here). So since I am sometimes asked how Robin has managed to stay married to me all these years, I offer my best guesses as to what has done the trick for us:

1. Date night. From the very start, we have reserved one evening a week to date each other. To focus on each other. To remember why we fell in love in the first place.

2. Boundaries. I wrote a whole post about "Boundaries for Pastors," so I won't belabor it here. But careful boundaries have protected us both, and deepened our mutual trust.

3. Days off and vacations. I know some ministry couples who rarely take days off and seldom take their vacation time from the church. I think that's foolish. You can't give good things to your spouse if you've spent it all at the church.

4. Retreats and classes. Over the years, the lovely Robin and I have taken periodic marriage retreats or enrichment weekends. Those things have given us invaluable help in (for example), learning each other's intimacy needs, conflict-management styles, and learning styles, among other things. They've helped us to gain deeper understanding of each other and make adjustments along the way.

5. Premarital counseling. We never had premarital counseling before our wedding. But we've provided it for scores of couples--and each time we do, we brush up on our own skills.

6. Frequent renewal of vows. On our thirty-fifth anniversary, the lovely Robin and I renewed our vows behind a waterfall in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. That was fun and wonderful. But we do much the same thing at every wedding we attend, holding hands and silently renewing our vows as the couple getting married recite theirs.

7. Mutuality. Our marriage has never been a hierarchy but a gift-based partnership (1 Corinthians 7:4, 11:11-12). We each have clearly defined responsibilities and roles, but in our marriage these things are based on the way God has molded us and gifted us. We try to outdo each other in love, respect, kindness, and self-sacrifice...and we both end up winning.

I could go on, of course. The lovely Robin's beauty, grace, and patience should top the list, no doubt. But these seven things have gone a long way toward enabling us to go a long way--more than halfway to our seventieth anniversary.

The Red Letter Life

I'm so thrilled to announce that my latest book, The Red Letter Life" 17 Words from Jesus to Inspire Simple, Practical, Purposeful Living, is now available!

In The Red Letter Life, I focus on just seventeen words Jesus spoke--"Come," "Follow," "Take," and others--and explore the deep meaning and life-changing power of each word. In the first chapter, I wrote:
Our God is a God who invites scrutiny. He says, “Come now, and let us reason together.” He says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” He says, “Put me to the test.”

And now, in Christ, God says, “Come and see.” Check it out. Look. Listen. Learn. Jesus invites us to inquire into him. He welcomes our questions. He will receive us, even with our doubts and faults.
I hope you'll get a copy and read it. I'd love it if you'd tell others about it, maybe even post a few lines of review on Amazon or And I'd really love it if you'd share this post on your Twitter feed or Facebook page--even mention it on your blog. Don't just do it for it for Jesus!

The Pastor's Desk (Episode 30)

I spoke recently at Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference at Ridgecrest Conference Center in Black Mountain, North Carolina (near Asheville). There I met fellow pastor, Jeff Andler of (wait for it) Jeff Andler Ministries.
He sent me these photos of his desk, which is a cabinet in his home. In fact, he offered two photos: one of the desk when it is closed (presumably when he puts away his pastor badge) and the other, obviously, of the desk when it is open.
(If you would like to participate in this recurring feature on the Desperate Pastor blog, submit a single photo of a pastor's study, office, or desk--but no tidying up before taking the picture, mind you--to, along with a short description identifying to whom it belongs)