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The Liver & Onions Test

As Walmart steaks run $30 for a package of two, folks turn stares of disbelief to beef liver as the affordable cut of meat. The $300 grocery tab reinforces a gut punch that politicians delivered a message, "Let them eat liver!"

Applying the liver & onions test to the church, what one ministry stands as critical nourishment for today’s church? There is one clear winner – Bible study.

“Let them eat liver!”

Bible Deserts

King David reflected on the nourishment received from studying the Word of God, saying, ” The law of the Lord is perfect,  refreshing the soul.” Like a food desert, where nourishing food is priced out of a neighborhood due to location, so some churches fail to thrive due to missing a balanced Bible study.

They are more precious than gold,
    than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
    than honey from the honeycomb.

Psalm 19:10

You Are What You Eat

Jesus knew the importance of this concept in his temptation when he responded to the devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” ( Matthew 4:4), a quote from Deuteronomy that beyond physical bread we need the bread of life that comes from heaven.

Chef’s Table

Take a busy pastor as an example, what more could he or she do considering an already jammed Sunday schedule? How could the church move from a spiritual food desert to a Michelin Star?

No Michelin Pot Luck’s

No Michelin Star is awarded to a church pot luck rather to a restaurant where every aspect of the meal was planned. A busy pastor could begin by asking volunteers to form a Christian Education Council assigned to create a unified system of Christian education that will help church members continue their Bible study “from the basket to the casket” (As our Baptist friends teach).

ABT – Always Be Teaching

Applying the ABT method, the Christian Education Council could begin with a sheet of butcher paper by mapping what classes are taught and what is being taught from the nursery to senior adults. What curriculum is used for children, youth, and adult classes?

You may say, “Pastor Jim, I’m too busy to teach. I lead multiple services on Sunday. The people get what they need from my sermons.” Believing that concept, a pastor is on the path to “congregation drift” to be blown along whatever favorite study they stumble into. Years of congregational drift in Bible study could unravel those inspiring Sunday sermonettes.

The ABT method does not mean the pastor does all the teaching but that the pastor is engaged with what is being taught.

Seasons of Learning

Overheard – “People don’t want to be committed to leading a class every Sunday. They want to go fishing, to the lake, or to their timeshare in Aruba.” Rather than resist natural patterns of ebb and flow, use your butcher paper to draw an education stream that flows with the bends and eddies.

The pastor, staff, and a few key leaders can survey what material is presently being taught and ask, 1. Does the material support our church and denomination? 2. Does the material give the leaders what they need to proving a compelling class experience that builds the spiritual life of the participants? 3. Can others use the material and duplicate the experience?

1. Does the material support our church and denomination? 2. Does the material give the leaders what they need to proving a compelling class experience that builds the spiritual life of the participants? 3. Can others use the material and duplicate the experience?

Back to the butcher paper and magic markers, write Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. While worship services are best designed around the Liturgical Calendar, Christian Education is best designed around the school year, which provides natural breaks and pauses –

Fall, Winter: Advent – Christmas, Spring: Lent- Easter, Summer.

Take a moment and outline what classes are taught for all ages during these season. Next, use the denominational resource that fits your church, select classes and materials to balance out the year, giving times of rest and refreshment as in a school year.

For United Methodists, Cokesbury is their publishing house. Southern Baptists look to Lifeway for resources. Considering Advent, a church could use this interactive Cokesbury’s Advent Studies guide to schedule class resources.

No Artificial Ingredients

Some adult classes have met for years using the curriculum they like, and they have no plans to change. You may say, “Pastor Jim, one leader in our Methodist church is teaching Nazarene material.” Rather than foment an insurrection over a teacher’s use of nonapproved curriculum, the solution lies in forming new groups based on vibrant Bible based material. New groups always grow faster than older groups. Rather than battling to change a group, add a new one in line with your direction. Or, as overheard in the work-a-day world, “People hate to be sold … but they love to buy!” If I had to do my ministry over, I would have taken the above high road of a gentle, patient path toward change. I would have worked a lot more on consensus and valuing the opinion of the negative vote versus running roughshod over those holding a contrary position. Looking back, I could have spent more time actively listening to church members than talking at them.

Now that your church year class schedule is mapped, consider where the classes will meet, review the budget, and ask adult participants to share in the expense of materials. How does your Christian Education budget reflect the priority of Bible Study as a spiritual discipline?

Master Chef

The important work of the Christian Education Council means nominating teachers and leaders who best fit the group and material taught. When calling those persons to ask them to consider the opportunity, it is a comfort knowing they have the resources to be successful and along with a set start and end date, improves successful recruiting for teachers and leaders. The Christian Education Council meetings, rather than all business, should involve sharing the journey over food and drink and sharing of the journey.

When I served as Executive Pastor in my last position, the Kitchen Director would bring leftovers on a cart from the Wednesday night meal so that we might break bread together in our staff meetings the next day. Some of the best days of church staff planning revolved around those meals together. While we didn’t solve all the world’s problems, we left satisfied and excited about the new plans in ministry.

Two things have enteral life – the human soul and a church volunteer position without an end date.

“17Jesus said to Peter the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' and he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'  Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep'” (John 21:17, ESV).

Bon Appétit

Pastor Jim

“Amen!” or “Oh, Me!”?

“Amen!” … or “Oh, Me! I could write a book about church fights I mediated (or instigated) Chapter 1 – Change of worship time … Chapter 2- Install a PowerPoint projector in the sanctuary … 3- Launch any building project … 4-Clean out and toss all the junk in an unused classroom and destroy the sacred table decorations stored for the annual Ladies Mission Society … 5. Give the choir “constructive criticism” on the length of their Christmas Cantata …

Asbestos Vestments,

Pastor Jim

RV Nation: Border Crisis Solution

How can the church, while sitting on prime real estate, recover its prophetic voice on affordable housing?

RV parks raise rates over $100 per night as cities forbid public camping

As the U.S. faces a double crisis of affordable housing and mass border crossings, a solution may be to create RV Nation, stretching entirely across the southern border. Rather than fence the border, the U.S. could develop it with tiny homes and RV parks with monthly site rent waived in exchange for “Southern Border Settlement Security.” RV Nation Security could monitor its perimeter and attempting crossings. The development of RV Nation would include unbroken security fencing of RV Nation parks. Instead of fencing the border, fence the RV parks.

A side benefit of RV Nation would be the employment of veterans, seniors, the unemployed, and others who wish to build the infrastructure and services needed across RV Nation including, roads, bridges, wells, solar, schools, police, fire, businesses, and churches. Across the border, Mexico would be encouraged to build a sister settlement of like kind, creating a 1 mile plus security development corridor based on friendship rather than enmity. The RV Nation creates a reverse migration strategy by fighting mass illegal crossing with healthy development.

The US Forest Service is restricting camping on its land. States like Tennessee are debating making it a felony to camp on public land. The northeast rations diesel as gasoline follows behind it in price pushing toward $10 per gallon. For such a time as this, the U.S. could recruit settlers to pioneer RV Nation, which would foster a secure sister community on the Mexico border.

Pastor Jim

Plan B?: Security Equity for Schools

The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, unless the bad guy gets the drop on the good guy. Then choose Plan B. What? No Plan B?

To enter a sports arena, security frisks fans for bottled water.

To enter a school, a maniac strolls in with an AR-15.

Security equity now.

In memory of the Robb Elementary School (Ulvalde, Texas) mass shooting victims

Keep Every Door Locked At All Times … and other half truths

The other half of the truth, and key security element, is the conversation with the teachers and staff regarding what is working and what is not. This is opposed to superimposing slogans, such as “Keep every door locked at all times.” While slogans feel right and just, the reality emerges only through dialogue with stakeholders.

While Smith Elementary School’s [pseudonym] 250 page security manual touts deadbolted windows and doors, no one mentions the moldy air conditioning system that should have been replaced six years ago. Staff and teachers have complained about aggravated allergies and sweltering conditions, but the district has not been responsive to the teachers’ complaints. So, the teachers open doors and windows to relieve allergic or asthmatic conditions and create a condition where learning is possible.

The district office prides itself in the quarterly lockdown drills at Smith Elementary, as teachers shout, “Hide under your desk!” and the principal rattles locked doors. But the antiquated locks require a key and the teacher to find the key in the bottom of a purse, stand exposed to an intruder in the hallway, lock the door, then reenter the classroom. One misplaced key means that door remains unlocked.

If the door is unlocked and a school lockdown occurs,
however, the teacher must open the door, step into the
hallway, lock the door, step back inside the classroom,
and close the door ― a time-consuming process with
a potentially dangerous exposure. One way around
this dilemma is to keep the door latch “locked” at all
times, whether the door is open or closed. But this
allows students in unsupervised classrooms to lock
others out, simply by shutting the door.

From “Door Locking Options in Schools”

School security in dialogue with staff is like pouring sidewalks at a college. Don’t pour the sidewalks first. Plant the grass and watch where the students have worn the grass in paths of natural travel. Then pour the sidewalks over the paths.

The Paths to Security,

Pastor Jim

“Impervise!”

When I run out of resources for a desired outcome, I “Impervise”!

Considering churches facing shortfalls of people and and resources, the church needs more leaders with the calling to Impervise. Impervise is a newly discovered spiritual gift that emerged by necessity in 2021, ranking right behind pastor, prophet, and teacher.

A special thanks to Austin Ross and his welding Youtube channel for reminding me of expressions I heard while in seminary in Texas.

Breakthrough

Manage to have a breakthrough this week rather than a breakdown.

Change, our ever present companion

Six months ago I started a new job as an insurance adjuster for the U.S.’s largest claim administrator. Sometimes I wonder if I had not followed the calling to serve as pastor of three churches, and executive pastor of a fourth, I would have advanced the halls in the ranks of insurance. Yet, I would not have traded all the promotions in insurance for the joys and memories of church work in the kingdom of God, reminding me that my insurance work is but tent making, like that of the Apostle Paul. I am on retainer for God.

My skills as an aging insurance examiner, makes me like an old “Gunny Sergeant,” climbing the corporate ladder would only interfere with my ability to serve at a world class level. Experiencing an insurance loss, be it injury or property damage, is pretty much a miserable experience. I enter that world of misery and make it as tolerable for them as I can. And for my peers and associates, … even an enjoyable misery.


“Gunny” Plumley in “We Were Soldiers”

Wasted days and wasted nights

As I started the new remote insurance job, my routine revolved around the use of four monitors, three keyboards, three computers, three mice, two video cameras, and speech recognition. The learning curve was so steep with 70 learning modules, I awakened in the night with a dream that left something undone. This was the adult version of the college student’s dream that he realized he enrolled in a class that he never attended … or he missed the final exam.

Home Office

As the weeks wore on, I considered resigning as I felt like I had moved to Japan and was tasked with a new language and strange, new traditions. Then I considered what I learned from foreign missionaries and how they adapted to culture shock –

Through my travels, I have experienced things completely foreign to my definition of normal.

I  have bathed and washed my hair in a bucket, slept in a treehouse, eaten with monkeys, been roommates with scorpions, used two boards as a toilet, traveled through the mountains in the back of a pickup truck and eaten foods I can’t pronounce.

All of these experiences, while exciting, triggered culture stress in me, which can affect your mind, body and emotions.

From a missionary blog on culture shock – https://team.org/blog/how-to-handle-culture-stress

Last month, I won our team’s VIP award as claim examiner. What my team doesn’t know is how many times I considered pulling out. I stooped to ask my former employer for my old job back. But looking back, I experienced the culture adaptation stages taught by the missionaries:

Culture shock generally moves through four different phases:

  • Honeymoon (“Wow, this is great!”)
  • Frustration (“What have I done?”)
  • Recovery  (“I think I can, I think I can…”)
  • Acceptance (“I love these people. I don’t want to go home!”)

One day during the last six month process, I announced to my wife that, “I managed to have a breakthrough this week rather than a breakdown.” And, like the old missionary, I discovered, “I love these people. I don’t want to go home.”

Out of the Trench and into the Light

You may say, “Pastor Jim, easy for you to say. But you don’t know the stress I face leading a post-pandemic church. Half the church hates me for wearing a mask; the other half won’t come to church for fear of getting sick. Where do I apply to work as an insurance adjuster?”

First, you are not alone, Barna Group reported that pastoral burnout has worsened during the pandemic and found that 38 percent of pastors are seriously considering leaving full-time ministry. Seek out a support group to find strength and community in your distress. The rate of burn out not only applies to pastors but also to pandemic teachers, medical personnel, and first responders.

Second, grab the best tools from your library shelf. Three books helped me. One key insight was to create a mini-oasis each day, courtesy of Josh Davis’s book, “Two Awesome Hours.” I deceived myself jumping into every email I received, like Pavlov’s Pit Bull, rather than pausing to capture the picture of what is important. The second book, “Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress” I’ve dogeared over the years since I served as a pastor. The third book is, “A Little Book of Celtic Prayer,” with prayers for each day of the week.

Dreams can tell you something is out of balance in your life. To stay in tune with yourself and God, start a prayer and thought journal. A blank lined book from a dollar store will do. Draw, doodle, confess, prayer … get it into your journal. Be ready for flash insights to capture in your journal, even in the middle of the night. From A Little Book of Celtic Prayer, Friday evening prayer for bedtime, “Michael of the Angels” (p. 110), for night anxiety.

Third, put some feet in your faith in action by taking a prayer walk. Anglican prayer beads are an excellent resource to use on your daily pilgrimage. Unspoken Elements provides both prayer beads and prayer guides. You can even use prayer beads on a treadmill or elliptical at the gym, just hang on to the machine or you may find you’ve cut your earthly journey short.

Oorah!

Pastor Jim

A Hearing Aid for the Post Pandemic Church

Revelation 2:29
29 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” 

Over the past three years, Carol and I visited over 20 churches in the Verde Valley of Arizona. Conservative – liberal, Baptist-Lutheran, instrumental-noninstrumental, independent-denominational, contemporary-traditional. We learned that churches have acquired a progressive spiritual hearing loss. They have become tone deaf to the needs of the people and lost the ranges needed to stay in tune with the Holy Spirit moving in the world.

This week I came home with a milestone of senior living – hearing aids. My hearing aid provider gave me two assignments: 1)Wear them and 2)Listen to and identify the sounds. Then report back on the experience in a week. He detailed how a lady described the sound of something like cats running on her roof. The audiologist was both perplexed and concerned that perhaps some creature was loose on her roof. Further listening revealed that the sound only occurred when the drier operated. Opening the drier door, she found loose bouncing objects were her roof cats. “That would be a senior moment,” I thought and that “Not an experience I would confess.”

Later that day, after dinner, my turn came. I heard the sound of the scraping of a vinyl record (for those who remember vinyl) when the needle hits the end of track while the record is still spinning. “Sshhh …. sshhh … sshhh.” I set off down the hall in search for the record – looking and turning my ear. It was coming from our tiled hallway. Then it matched my steps … It was my steps! I was dragging my bare feet in a senior shuffle. The Mummy wearing hearing aids. My wife chimed in, “I told you you’ve been dragging your feet!” Now with my new hearing, I am resolved to march like a drum major in a parade and “Pick up those feet!”

Imperceptibly, today’s church has fallen into the shuffle of a listless movement toward no perceptible direction. It is movement without meaning, one step ahead of a fall, wrapped up in its own agenda like the Mummy.

Lon Chaney, Jr. – The Mummy

Audiogram of the Spirit

I ran a Logos Bible software analysis and found this Audiogram of the need for Spiritual Hearing in the church.

Your Scrabble word of day is “epiphonema.” Legendary newsman, Walter Cronkite’s closing line was “And that’s the way it is.” He never intended to use this line but stumbled into it when his producers pressured him to cut time. Jesus ended his teachings with “He who has ears, let him hear.” The Spirit of Jesus, in Revelation, continued the same sign off in His word to the churches.

Or as the late evangelist, Bob Mussmon (Lancaster, PA), would stop mid-sermon and say, “Are you still with me, saints, or have you gone home yet? … Hello? … Hello?” That was his epiphonema, an epiphany but of words.

A City on a Hill … Creates a Steep Driveway

Along our journey to 20 churches, we visited churches situated on hilltops, with vistas that embraced the red rocks of Sedona. These churches sat on highways by which tens of thousands pass each year. Certainly these beacons of faith would stand and icons of spirituality. What we found were churches isolated by their own location. Jesus did not teach “Go sit in a city on a hill.” He taught his disciples on the shores of Lake Gennesaret, in Galilee, how to be present, visible among the people to whom you minister.

Strangely churches become protective of isolation on the hill. “We can’t host an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in our church; we found some cigarette butts in our parking lot last time we tried that.” Churches in isolation can be identified by their “one stringed instrument.” One church used a xylophone as their instrument of worship. Nothing wrong with a xylophone or a Marimba band banging out a relaxing Caribbean mix. Sunday after Sunday … the same instrument, such as a xylophone, will eventually sound like a record needle stuck in a track.

Assignment: Listen to the sounds in your church this Sunday. What are your xylophones? What one step can you take this month to come down from the mountaintop and add some variety? Where can you leave your isolation and be present with people? Perhaps the topics below will open stuffy ears.

ABT – Always Be Teaching

In 1920, on the heels of the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Sunday School Board hired Arthur Flake as its Sunday School Superintendent. Using his principles, the Southern Baptist church became the largest protestant denomination in the United States. Facing post-pandemic declines of 30 percent, the Southern Baptists are rediscovering Flake’s Five Principles:

Know the possibilities. Flake advocated surveying the community to determine what persons might be prospective Sunday School members. Goals were established based on real actionable information.

Enlarge the organization. Flake advocated expanding the organizational structure in anticipation of growth; not just in response to it. Upon encouraging every church to have a class for babies, I’ve heard the same response dozens of times: “But we don’t have any babies.” And you never will if you don’t enlarge the organization in expectation that you will!

Enlist and train leaders. A growing organization must have leaders who are properly enlisted and adequately trained. The typical Sunday School will need to enlist and train about 15 new leaders to staff five new classes that will result in a growth of 50 in attendance.

Provide space. To start new classes or groups, you’ve got to have leaders and a place to meet. To start five new units, you’ll need five “spaces.” Not necessarily rooms. Not necessarily at the church.

GO after the people!  The other four steps don’t matter if you don’t do this one. That’s why Flake started with a survey that produced real names and addresses. Enroll people in the classes.

From Lifeway Research

Samaritan Spoken Here

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear." - Matthew 11:15

No, I don’t intend to offend but, like an ear adjusting to hearing aid’s new sound, it will take adjustment while your church’s spiritual mind adjusts and embraces some new highs and lows of ministry. Ready to hear? … Or have you gone home yet?

Pastor Jim

We can take Flake’s Formula and apply it, beyond Sunday School, to the church’s ministry and mission as a whole:

Consider the Possibilities

Before Sunday comes, visit that modern Nazareth melting pot – your local Walmart. These are the people of your ministry. Watch them come and go, how they act. What are their ages? What are their needs? Jesus himself ministered by “Walking Around” and turned on his spiritual hearing.

Who has been ostracized? Disenfranchised? Who is in need? Ask your key leaders to watch the local news nightly for a week and ask, “Who is in need?” and “Where are they hurting?” Gather together on Sunday and discuss what you can do as a church to meet those needs?

In my last church, we learned that local churches, offended by the Boy Scouts’ position on gay and transgender leaders and scouts, broke their ties with the organization and ended their use of church facilities. Our church reached out to the orphaned troop and offered use of the facilities.

One memorable experience I had was shoulder deep in mud with two colonels from Luke Air Force Base – one over F-16 training and the other head of F-16 maintenance. We nicked a church water line on a son’s Eagle project and the three of us lay shoulder to shoulder in the mud trying to locate punctured line. The pergola was erected, the Eagle badge awarded, and a lasting imprint of the church’s positive impact in the community remains.

Our church combined its Confirmation class with the Scout “God and Country” badge. We invited parents to sit in the class. Church membership was not required. This created a wonderful dialog in faith between Scouts from various faith groups.

Enlarge the Organization

Hide it under a bushel? No!
I'm going to let it shine
Hide it under a bushel? No!
I'm going to let it shine
Let it shine, all the time, let it shine.

This is the decision to act on what the Spirit is telling you. If you hear God’s direction in a ministry, it’s imperative to gain the agreement and support of the pastor and key church staff and lay leaders. This does not mean you have every detail worked out or that you have a 5 year pro forma business plan for your church board. Rather, “We have heard God’s voice and agree to step in this direction.”

Enlist and Train Leaders

For our DIY (Handyman) Ministry, we enrolled participants on via sign-up sheets. We began the work day with breakfast burritos and training stations for what projects we tackled that morning. We fed them, we trained them, and we always stopped on or before the agreed time.

Our DIY Ministry’s projects included: installation of entry ramps for seniors, home plumbing repair, painting, church pew repair, dusting, and church painting.

Pastor Jim’s Maxim: “Never train without providing snacks and drinks.” In one large wedding I did, the bride and groom wanted to greet each of the hundreds of guests before any snack, food and drink were served in the hall. Following the service, I changed out of my robe, greeted the co-officiating pastor and meandered to the reception hall. The atmosphere was that of a morgue. People sat stone-faced across each other at round tables. I elbowed my way into the kitchen and begged a glass of iced tea before departing the hall.

“More iced tea, please?”

People have a nervous energy and need something in their hands or to eat and drink in group settings.

Provide Space

The enclosed carport of the old parsonage became the thrift-store, selling high quality second-hand goods with proceeds going to missions. As executive pastor, I not only bought my own treasures but found that “thrift store ministry” created a fellowship that revolved around meaningful service.

What little work was required in enclosing the carport and air conditioning the same, has been rewarded seven-fold over the years.

Please don’t be offended when I tell you churches can be stingy! Stingy with their space … hoarding of their resources.

Consider for a moment all of the real estate that churches sit on in the Phoenix metro area. These properties are used once a week … for an hour. Meanwhile, as pandemic eviction moratoriums expire, families are thrown from their homes. Rents are beyond reach, requiring nearly more qualification than a home purchase.

How can the church be involved in a housing ministry, Habitat for Humanity or senior apartment construction? (Not a rhetorical question. I don’t have the answer for your church). Historic Los Arcos United Methodist Church, in Scottsdale, built its own senior apartments directly next to the church, operating under a separate church sponsored incorporation. In the Phoenix metro area, if a senior moves to an apartment 10 miles away but can’t drive, she might as well live in a palm frond hut in Paraguay. Isolation and loneliness are real and present dangers for seniors. The senior apartments continue to serve while the Scottsdale church faded into history like those churches of Revelation. I felt privileged to have served in the Desert Southwest Conference with Rev. Tim Lusk, an insightful pastor of this church.

 “Los Arcos United Methodist. Built 1063 – 1966 and designed by Cartmel & Rossman.Derivative of the work of the great Mexican architect-engineer Felix Candela, a true innovator in thin-shell paraboloid concrete structures of the time.” – Walt Lockley
Hacienda De Los Arcos, Scottsdale, AZ

Hear and Go!

What is the Spirit saying to your church? To you? Perhaps that word will transcend the footprint of your church today, reaching far into the future. Spiritual ears, like hearing aids, are of no use unless worn. One example in practice was Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church, Clarkdale, AZ, who heard God’s whisper to provide new sports shoes for community children returning to school. Last Sunday they invited children present to lay hands on the shoes while the congregation, in a responsive liturgy, blessed over seventy pairs !

-Pastor Jim