“Overstuffed Sunday”: Situational Awareness

It was Christmas Cantata Sunday. The congregation felt the energy of the choir and orchestra guests visiting from a local university. The choir stood on both sides of the church and launched the worship experience with rendition that would give Handel chills. As the pastor processed in to start the service, she didn’t see a shadow following her threatening to devour the benefits of the visiting musicians and choir.

Image from Tony Hughes’ blog “Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory”

What could possibly, with the orchestra, visiting musicians, choir turn the sanctuary into a “shark tank”? The truth -the pastor brought her own shark into worship experience. Her own attempt to prove that she does effective work as a pastor provided the fuel for her lack of her situational awareness that may shorten her tenure at the church. {Disclaimer: Today’s blog is a composite of experiences over the last twenty churches visited. This does not single out any one male, female or a particular church or denomination. It is a common problem.}

Following the the enraptured choir processional, the pastor that Sunday marched the isle with a full manuscript sermon, a children’s sermon, a notated sharing of prayer requests and pastoral readings through the cantata. After the congregation sat, the pastor rattled through a whole page of church announcements.

Tony Hughes, in his blog “Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory” wrote, “So, how do sales people manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after they’ve done so much good work to develop an opportunity and establish value? 

How do pastors miss the cue? In the above worship service, the pastor failed to notice that the orchestra stopped smiling during the pastoral announcements. While the congregation appreciated the naming of Brother Smith’s upcoming hernia repair and the Sister Mary’s holiday depression, the orchestra sat stone-faced.

During the pastor’s children sermon to three children, the orchestra and visiting choir sat as silent observers. Pastor and her assistant spelled JOY out of candy canes then asked the children to explain what the letters meant. The kids answered, “Joy?”

“Yes!”, said the pastor, explaining that each child will receive a chocolate candy cane. Then pastor answered a child who asked, “Do these candy canes really taste like chocolate?” “Yes, they taste like chocolate.”

The pastor held a girl’s hand as she walked the child back to her pew. Upon arrival the girl did not want to be seated; so, the pastor shuffled the girl forward on isle to be seated with the pastor. Meanwhile, the choir and orchestra sat silent.

Finally, the announcements, children’s sermon and prayer requests over, the orchestra launched into a Christmas medley of classic hymns with the choir. On the front row, unseen by the pastor, the lead violinist smiled in the joy of worship. We waited so long in the service to see that smile.

Why do pastors lose their off switch?

The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive (I Cor 10:23 NIV).

Pastors have Not Learned the Art of Reading Their People

Pastors learn to read their sermon notes so they don’t get lost, but they’re not taught to read the congregation so the people are not lost.

Pastors learn to read their sermon notes so they don’t get lost, but they’re not taught to read the congregation so the people are not lost.

Let’s do a mini-survey. When you last attended church, did the pastor’s animated slide presentation (15 slides and a 12 Bible passages) stop when the point was made and the congregation was moved or did he plow on to the last slide? At that point the sermon turned dry as an overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.

This process of “covering the material” is the clergy version of “You can’t leave the table until the plate is empty.” This leaves everyone staring blankly and wondering when will it end? This is why in other blogs, I have been adverse to “fill-in-the-blank notes” as they guarantee attempts to “cover the material.” As. St. Paul said, “Not everything is beneficial.”

The next culprit – slide presentations lend themselves toward “material covering” sermons. If your goal is “material covering,” save it for your quilting ministry. Over the last half-dozen churches we visited, the pastors have quoted from ten to twelve different Bible passages as though quantity will prove that the pastor said something that stuck.

Pastors Lack the Directed Attention for Those Off Task

You may say, “Jim, I know I’ve been covering material. I don’t know what to do to engage my people. I can see their eyes glazing but what can I do?”

Bruce H. Wilkinson, Founder of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, wrote the forward in Dr. Howard Hendricks’ “Teaching to Change Lives.” One day in seminary Bruce tested the master professor — he just stared out the window.

Teaching to Change Lives: Seven Proven Ways to Make Your Teaching Come Alive

Dr. Hendricks, rather than just “covering the material”, walked out from behind the desk.

Wilkinson stared out the window.

Dr. Hendricks drew terrific charts and told jokes. Lots of jokes

Still Wilkinson stared out the window.

Finally, three minutes into this, Dr. Hendricks ran down the aisle and screamed, “Wilkinson! What on earth are you looking at?”

Wilkinson apologized but didn’t tell Dr. Hendricks about the “little experiment” until years later. I recommend “Teaching to Change Lives” as an excellent tool for pastors.

Secrets of Directed Attention

My wife, Carolyn, is a retired elementary principal of an excelling school and a former orchestra teacher. She said the master teachers know how to speak to the class while tapping their nails on the desk of a child who is “looking out the window” or opening the book of a student to the correct page while talking with the class about the subject. The master teacher directs attention through their awareness of each child in the room and that child’s needs.


Pastor Jim gives you permission starting this Sunday …

… Permission to end your sermon at the height of learning

… Permission to use only three of your fifteen Bible verses

… Permission to leave your people wanting more of God and of your message.

At the beginning of your service notes write, “Read the people.” Arrive early in the Sanctuary and begin reading by what the atmosphere is telling you. Is the air conditioning set right? New batteries in your microphone (because you know the old-timer at the sound booth likes to run batteries until they die – with your sermon)? Paper in the restrooms? Coffee urns full? Creamer and sweetener stocked?

In the mid-service, “Read the people.” Are they with you? Are you dragging every verse out of every hymn as though you are leading a funeral dirge?

Mid-sermon and in your notes write – “Read the People.” Plan an “impromptu moment” in every service in which you give God room to work rather than just your “covering the material.”

Pause before you begin your sermon … Read the people. Are they ready? Are you ready? Give a moment of silence before you launch.

Mid-sermon and in your notes write – “Read the People.” Plan an “impromptu moment” in every service in which you give God room to work rather than just your “covering the material.”

Think back to your childhood when you watched “Superman,” “Batman” or “Lost in Space”- episodes which all ended with cliffhangers … “To Be Continued!”

Take your people reading skills to the next level. At your welcome booth, give your church guests a two part perforated response card

Take your people reading skills to the next level. At your welcome booth, give your church guests a two-part perforated response card –

Scan the QR with your smartphone to try the survey Pastor Jim wrote to help pastors read their people. Caution: Don’t read the responses on Mondays. Learn from them and share with your
worship leaders.

“You know, I’m just vanilla … but remember … vanilla is the world’s favorite flavor!”

Dr. C.W. Brister, Christian Ministry Professor

Vanilla Extract

You may say, “Jim, is there hope for me and my teaching or preaching?” Looking back, I have made every misstep described above. I remember my first day in Christian Ministry class with Dr. C.W. Brister, Chair of Pastoral Ministry at SWBTS seminary. When I sat in a chair to the side and just behind the professor in the packed classroom, he asked me to move to a chair within his line of sight. Dr. Brister, gentle-spoken and slow-paced, said, “You know, I’m just vanilla … but remember … vanilla is the world’s favorite flavor!” A few weeks later as I walked late to attend chapel at max capacity, a most dynamic voice spoke over the narthex speakers. The voice coaxed and prodded the students, like a lifeguard tossing a life preserver. As I opened the door, to my surprise, as guest preacher that day stood Mr. Vanilla! Dr. Brister that day held each seminarian captive in his line of sight and let me know there was room even for me in God’s service.

Just Vanilla,

Pastor Jim

Hint: If you try the SurveyMonkey.com free version of a “Church Experience Feedback Survey,” turn multiple responses to “ON” and no limit to responses. Create a SurveyMonkey.com account and copy our “Church Experience Feedback Survey” questions to set up your own survey. Change your settings as described below. This will allow multiple responses from the same device – great for a kiosk.

Church of One Stringed Worship

As you sit in theater seats, preparing for your bulletin and hymnal free worship experience, you see the worship preparations. The drummer sits encased in Plexiglas so as not to offend. Three eight foot LED screens show animated effects of leaves falling and upcoming events. Robotic lights bow in reverent anticipation of the coming worship show.

Four electric guitarists, a bass and keyboard enforce the vocals. Finally, it’s “Go Time” the words scroll on the screen with video clips of wilderness wonders and smiling disciples. The church has arrived at what it thinks is the height of worship – no music director, no hymnals, no printed music. Finally, the church is freed to a true contemporary experience.

A One Stringed Instrument

A One-Stringed Washtub

The worship team didn’t see it coming. Week after week they focused on just being a “group of guys” who loved Jesus and who practiced for worship without structure. On Sunday the first worship song flowed smoothly into the next … and the next. A few old timers sat due to the length of standing. A 50 channel audio and video mixer ensures that the sound and visuals blend perfectly. Wait … there’s a fly in the ointment – “coupled resonance” – Two pendulums suspended from a common support will swing back and forth in intriguing patterns if the support allows the motion of one pendulum to influence the motion of the other.

Coupled Resonance

Unplanned Sameness

The guitarists in the “worship zone” didn’t see it like a frog in heating water. The worshipers sensed it but didn’t want to nay-say the service filled with a stage of musicians and vocalists. Like a pendulum, you could count the hidden issue – 1, 2 ,3, 4 … 1, 2, 3, 4 … 1,2,3,4. In an attempt to sound worshipful, every praise song in the service was 4/4 time.

Some tempos were faster, others slower, but the praise service descended to a uniform “neo-chant” of 4/4 signature. Then to make sure the people receive a full worship experience, the musicians added an extra 15 minutes of “neo-chant” praise songs.

Like pendulums that move almost magically in sync, the musicians desiring to have free worship, with no director, moved in unplanned sameness. The entire congregation, resonating with the musicians, swayed in the same monotonous, one stringed worship.

chef’s table

If you are leading worship, consider yourself a chef in God’s kitchen. Gather a few of your leaders together and watch an episode of Chef’s Table and consider how to add beauty and variety into your service.

Think craft and not quantity. How can the Spirit of creation breath variety into your music service? Take an old hymnal and consider the different tempos, accents and rests as a touchstone to ensure variety in your service. Consult with a professional church musician on how to bring variety to the worship table.

Elect a volunteer musician to serve as “Music Leader” of the month who, working with the pastor, will direct both the worship leaders and the congregation. The Music Leader will not let the congregation escape with mediocre singing. Be willing to stop the music in order to take the singers with you.

Next Sunday, your people will not know how you improved the worship experience, but they will be swaying in resonance with the new worship banquet set before them. Bon Appétit !

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland. – Isaiah 43:19

Pastor Jim

Jesus & Speeding Tickets

At a church in Sedona, the pastor preached that when he drives, he needs Jesus to take over behind the wheel. Because when he drives his anger and frustration emerge. He encouraged the congregation to turn their motor vehicles over to Jesus. In essence, you would become a passenger with Jesus as the divine Cruise Control.

As I listened to him, I thought if Jesus were born today, would he ever get a speeding ticket? While driving on Dove Valley Parkway in Phoenix, would he drive the legal limit while raging drivers tailgated him and flashed lights to pass? Here is how it would have played out …

“And the 12 interns of Jesus followed him in his crimson sparkle red Kia Soul (custom plate “4GIVE”) as he traveled the Dove Valley Parkway in moderate traffic. Jesus, late for a speaking engagement at a Scottsdale synagogue, drove ten miles over the limit on the road that ran through pristine desert.

While at the lunch, one of the interns clicked on his phone video and interviewed Jesus on why he drove over the speed limit. “Was it a sin?”

Jesus smiled and said, “The speed limit was made for people and not people for the speed limit. Put some Soul in your drive!”

The Sedona pastor lacked “SOUL” in his message. Attempting to transform human activities into a mindless, soulless default to the Creator, he forgot that “Soul” living means both the upward connection with the Divine and the horizontal relationship with our fellow travelers.

Too many followers seek an “automatic” spiritual life when Jesus drives a 5-speed.

Postscript: For extra credit study the Early Church at its struggle against Gnostic Dualism – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism?fbclid=IwAR3eqnVsznSUawB7yU5BiwALJAW0ktamEkKPUFagytAlaK9tSxo0b7yer7U

Mexico: Unlikely Hero

 Nathaniel: “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” - John 1:46

Unlikely Hero – Mexico as haven for affordable US nursing home and long term care for aging Boomers.

Costs for care in a nursing home approach $100,000 per year.

” Long-term care insurance companies have sought premium hikes as high as 94 percent.”
Crowds rush the Border Wall before completion ... as Baby Boomers seek affordable retirement asylum in Mexico! 
by French street artist JR
More Boomers deciding to retire and move to Mexico – by Yetta Gibson

More Boomers deciding to retire and move to Mexico: Maybe you are one of thousands of Americans retiring and considering moving to Mexico.A new survey done by Expats in Mexico reveals more than 80 percent of baby boomers say they will retire in Mexico. 

Yetta Gibson, (3TV/CBS 5) April 25, 2019

“Double Indemnity:” How to Visit a Church Like an Insurance Adjuster

In today’s blog, you will be receive insights in how to visit a church like an insurance adjuster. In my insurance adjusting career handling all sorts of serious claims across the US, one of my favorite reads was Don Winslow’s “California Fire and Life” –

“Jack Wade was the rising star of the Orange County Sheriffs Department’s arson unit, but a minor scandal cost him everything, except his encyclopedic knowledge of fire. Now working as an insurance claims investigator, Jack is called in to examine a suspicious claim …”

Waving my author wand in a circle three times, I empower you, reader, as “Church Claims Investigator” to prepare you evaluate the claims made by the next church you visit. Can you sniff through the assertions of a church to determine whether this group is a safe match for you and your family? The insights given below will likely raise questions in your journey:

  1. Rule one: ask lots of questions
  2. Rule two: there is no bad question.

Your first assignment begins now …

… Your First Visit

… Begins with the worship bulletin. Below is an example of a church we have visited frequently. The first step, do a survey of the balance between men and women serving in the church. In the bulletin below, count how many men are listed in the bulletin compared to number of women. In a second pass, count how many females are serving in leadership roles, versus watching babies in the nursery, serving coffee or working as office receptionist.

The yellow highlights in the bulletin below show how the church sends the message that female leaders are welcome here:

This Sedona church exemplifies balanced leadership. Note that the Senior Pastor even prints his cell phone in the bulletin to foster communication and transparency within the congregation.

Before you attend the church, you can visit its website’s leadership area. We visited another prominent local church a few times. Below is their website today. Let’s click on this and see what you can observe compared to the example of the United Methodist Church bulletin above:

Upon clicking “Leadership” –

Blurring out the faces and descriptions, you get the picture that males run the church. A review of their doctrinal statement would support that white, straight males run the church.

Who is valued?

In light of who holds the senior leadership positions, whose voice will be heard? Who is relegated to support roles simply due to their gender?

I rewrote this blog to attempt to give it more a PG-13 perspective, redacting some severely toxic church leaders who made the local news. The tools given to you in this blog, will give you more freedom and fulfillment in your church journey.

Should you find yourself attracted to a male led church, I respect your decision and pray God blesses you. Please do your homework to determine how this male domination extends to the life choices of you and your daughters.

Example – We visited a local church. All the pastors and elders were male. The women sat at a different table from the men. Women were groomed to have a career under the protection of their husbands, meaning no career of their own. For example, a woman could work in the front office of her husband’s insurance agency.

Divorcees were second class citizens and grown children of divorce were suspect. Gay people have no place at the table. Home school is promoted to advocate separation from sinful society. And, now, most troubling, church discipline is to be administered from the pastor down in the church.

The top down church discipline means that the pastor doles out discipline he sees fit in a tight chain-of-command over the elders, the elders over the church members … the husband over the wives. In essence, this church attempted to create a male dominated plantation style of leadership, where any dissent was met with threat of shunning and possibly corporal punishment.


Your assignment is to visit a local church of your choice. Begin with the website. Visiting the church: Where are the women in leadership? The people of color? Are gay people welcome? Divorced people? Does their doctrinal statement read like a multi-paged single spaced Manifesto? A sample “Manifesto” copied below is one of three “Affirmations” from a church website which serves as church “twin language” relaying that the church holds to the similar code of “submission, allegiance, and protection.” In particular, these like-minded groups hold that women need men to protect them from their own life choices and decisions. Male control of finances can limit life choices such enrolling in a college course, clothing and beauty purchases, selection of friends, and education of children. It’s hard to escape when you can’t buy shoes for the journey. Children, likewise, fall under the same “discipline and protection.” Buzzwords I highlighted in red: allegiance, we have nothing good in ourselves, controlled, vulnerable, we submit, through the roles he has called us, we seek our own good when we seek the good of the body, protection and guidance, respective roles, God’s sovereign will, honor and obey, we submit.

The conservative dogmatic diagram below is widely circulated on social media to show how male “protection” runs downhill –

An excellent blog on this can found at “How Sexism in the Church Almost Ruined My Life.” Jennifer Martin subtitled her blog “A Supposedly Feminist Website.” The diagram describes a trickle down theory from the males in power. Women sheltered under this protection find a world in which they want for nothing. The man provides their financial needs and shields them from pressures of having a career. However, when a controlling or abusive man enters this world, he discovers his own gated entertainment park, where no man can question his exploits and no woman has a voice. A woman’s protected world of quilting, crafts and cran-apple pie becomes a prison walled by the cage of protection and reinforced by the complicit advice and silence of the male elders and pastors.

To suggest that women don’t need men to protect them from their own life choices upsets the entire testosterone filled male compound. I like the old Baptist motto, “It’s not how high you jump; it’s how straight you walk.” Or as Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” John 8:36. For those who are trapped in a faith group described above, there is hope for you to escape and begin anew.

-Thucydides, Athenian historian and general. 5th Century BC.

36 Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.

John 8:36

You are Valued,

Pastor Jim

Postscript: If you are searching for new church, The Church at Litchfield Park serves as a hallmark of a balanced ministry, where all people are welcome to worship and serve in a safe environment. You can review the church website at https://www.churchatlitchfieldpark.org/ and use it as a touchstone as you visit churches your area.