Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.

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4 Easy Ways to Support Your Church Staff

By Joe LaGuardia

In the mid-1990s, G. Lloyd Rediger published Clergy Killers, which argued that some churches are so destructive and dysfunctional that they have actually persuaded some staff to give up ministry altogether.   Churches not adept in conflict management or basic communication skills run the risk of abusing staff or, in the least, draining staff energy to the point of burn-out.

Sometimes this happens when congregations wield power over staff with little risk to the parishioners’ own well-being.  Unlike employers who have shareholders and CEOs to answer to, parishioners try to call the shots aggressively or passive-aggressively without having to risk their own financial or personal resources.  It is an unfair advantage that congregations have over the staff they employ.

Many churches, however, are wonderful congregations to call home.  Many treat staff fairly, have appropriate policies that protect all parties involved, and are intentional in building healthy communities that minimize dysfunction and distrust.  How to do that?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are four easy ways to support your staff at church:

Understand the job.  Jobs at church–from administrator or accompanist to pastor or pastoral counselor–are not the same as jobs in the secular world.  Every staff position in a church is designed to achieve specific goals while creating a sacred space for people to meet Christ while on campus.

Consider the average job–a mechanic, say.  What if you were a mechanic, and someone “dropped in” on you to chat with you about a concern every five minutes?  You would not be a productive mechanic.  Dropping in on staff at a church, however, is a regular part of our jobs.  We make time for it because we know that ministry takes place most often in the interruptions of life rather than in the daily routines.  A mechanic’s time is valuable, and problems can be handled in specific ways.  Church staff is no different!

Understanding the job also means knowing what it takes to do a particular job.  For instance, a pastor may “hide” in her office for ten hours a week and some parishioners may feel slighted, but how else might a pastor preach a great sermon if she does not have time to prepare and write one?  Do not use your own experiences to tell a staff person how to do his or her job.

Build trust.  Church leaders learn that building trust with a congregation is the first step in effective ministry.  Trust is the catalyst for growth and the linchpin for getting things done for the Kingdom of God.

Trust must be earned, and trust goes both ways!  Parishioners must behave and communicate in a way that builds trust with staff–to be people of their word, to keep confidences, to pray for staff.

Trust comes by being interested in staff personally.  You don’t have to be a staff member’s best friend, but why not ask how his child is doing in school or about any new movies he has watched lately?  Talk about something other than church, and listen intently.  Be concerned.  It builds trust, and when you have an issue, your ability to handle it with staff will go much more smoothly if your previous interactions were positive, personal ones.

Think like an employer.  For all practical purposes, congregations employ staff.  That means that the staff at a church–even the senior pastor–does not have a traditional employer that can help negotiate the rigors of the job.  If you were to think like an employer, what would change about how you treat your staff?  Let me give a few suggestions:

Employers lean on policies to protect employees.  For church staff, that means encouraging staff to take their vacations, find time to spend with family, but also be held accountable for punctuality, professionalism, and preparedness in their job.

Employers work with employees to maximize strengths and curb weaknesses.  Church staff is no different–members have strengths and weaknesses that define who they are and how they work.  Do not micromanage staff, but work with each one in order to encourage professional development by having room for people to be who they are in all of their idiosyncrasies.  Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Employers celebrate employees.  Form a staff support team that handles all of the special holidays and birthdays of your church’s staff.  Shower the church administrator when its Administrator Appreciation Week, for instance.  Collect a few gift cards, balloons, and cupcakes when a staff member has a birthday.  Write cards of encouragement and let your staff know that you are praying for them.  It makes a difference!

Stay invested.  The worst thing that can happen is that a parishioner goes to another church when that parishioner does not get her way.  If you have an issue with a staff member, deal with it directly, immediately, and honestly; but, be prepared for the response.  If you want a specific outcome to a problem, help the staff member address it, but know that you may not always get your way!

In fact, the church does not revolve around you, your expectations, or your personal preferences.  But you are a part of the discerning community that makes the church a part of the Body of Christ.  Discern and pray with staff as things arise, don’t be antagonistic or petty.  Be patient and have an openness of heart.  You and your staff are on the same team, there is no room for hostility or animosity.

At the end of the day, church is supposed to be a source of joy and comfort, of fulfilling the Great Commission and of ministry not misery.  If something is not going well, it is usually not because God is not present or the Spirit is not at work.  It is likely because we have done something to railroad the human relationships that keep the wheels of the church going in a forward, harmonious and productive direction.  I hope that these four tips will make a difference!

One Pastor’s Reading List for 2017

books_journalBy Joe LaGuardia

It is the “in” thing these days for pastors to publish their reading list for the New Year.  Since I am an avid reader, I can’t help myself.

The notion is that clerics were once the storehouses of knowledge, when churches were at the center of town and of political and cultural life for any given county.  Also, there is the thought that parishioners might be interested in what their pastor is reading.  That may or may not be true.

What is true, at least for me, is that my spiritual mentors instilled in me the abiding ethic that pastors should be continually growing in their field, in learning about what stands on the horizon of cultural movements, and how God is at work in our world today.

It was Karl Barth (or was it Deitrich Bonhoeffer?) who said that a pastor must go about his or her vocation with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Additionally, I consider myself a writer, and what writer do you know doesn’t boast of a formidable home library or reading list?  So there you go.

Here are a few books I am looking forward to reading as the new year is upon us.

1-  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.  I fell in love with Dillard’s writing a little over a year ago.  I started with The Writing Life, read Holy the Firm, and moved on to a book of her essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read The Writing Life for a second time when I moved to Vero Beach–all my other books were packed away in storage!

When I learned of her classic, Pilgrim, which won a Pulitzer, I set out to buy a copy at our local Vero Beach bookstore.   It is, in classic Dillard style, a meandering reflection of life at Tinker Creek in the Appalachian mountains.   Part memoir, part spiritual narrative, her writing moves between poetic reflection and naturalist exploration.

Dillard once stated that her goal was to write the “impossible page.”  In Pilgrim she does not disappoint (I started reading it before Christmas).  Her writing is heavy, rich like a meaty stew in which every bite contains enough nourishment and protein to fill you for the rest of the day.

2- Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  In a recent issues of The Christian Century, pastors submitted short paragraphs about the best book they’ve read recently.  A majority cited Just Mercy.  I better get on the bandwagon.

As director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, Stevenson mixes anecdotes and research to shed light on the underside of criminal (in)justice with the aim of bringing about real conversations on the need for criminal justice reform.

3-  The Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.  I heard about Douglas and her memoir of conservation when I went to high school at none other than Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida.

There was a joke about the school: What better way to honor her than by building a school right in the middle of the environment she longed to save?  (The ghost of Douglas struck, however–when I graduated, there was an urban legend that the school was sinking in the swamp at nearly a foot every ten years.)

This is not the only Florida-specific book on this list.  Over the years, I have come to love reading local authors about local places.  I’ve read scores of Georgia authors; now its time to read classics every Florida resident hopes to read.

4-  The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings.  Another Florida classic, a coming of age novel in the heart of the Florida wilderness.  I am not all that sure what this book is about, specifically, but it was recommended by a fellow Florida naturalist, so I figured I better read it.

5-  Communication in the Church, by Thomas Kirkpatrick.  One of the things I need to shore up in my first year at First Baptist is communication.  So many have cited communication as an issue for the church, partly because there was no figurehead–senior pastor–to really head that up.

This book came across my desk in an advertisement from the book’s publisher, Romman and Littlefield, and it caught my eye.  When I received it in the mail, I was delighted to find that it appeared to be both easy to read and practical.

When I spotted a chapter on how to lead a committee meeting, for instance, I knew I had made the right decision (not that I don’t know how to lead a committee meeting, but there is always room for improvement!).

6-  The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, by Roy Oswald.  In my previous church, we had an emotional intelligence guru in our associate pastor, the Reverend Karen Woods.  I was enthralled with the things she taught the staff and our church on this growing field in ministry, and I am still convinced its one of the most important things every church leader needs to understand.

I asked Pastor Karen what book would be best–give us the good stuff for people who want to read about EQ, but don’t have time to read every book on it.  She recommended Oswald’s book, and we purchased a half-dozen copies for staff and lay leaders.

I was grateful for her lessons, especially, since part of the interview process at First Baptist Church was to take an EQ test!

I began to read this book last month, and it is indeed still some of the most important material I’ve read of late.  What pastor does not want to learn more about empathy, self-awareness, and stress management.  Well, I am sure there are many–and this is the book to purchase for your stressed-out pastor!

7- The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben.  I read about this book somewhere along the way, maybe in an editorial or column in The Christian Century, and I was enthralled with the premise: A German forest ranger, Wohlleben, explores the science and theory behind the social life of trees.

I’m not sure what I will get out of this book, maybe that if trees are social, we humans can be too?  And, since moving to Florida, my family and I have made it a habit to hug a palm tree every now and then.  (We named the one palm tree on our property “Fred.”  We love Fred, but he gets grouchy sometimes if you get too close to him.)  This brings joy.  Maybe this book will explain why. Who knows?

8-  The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson.  A book of essays by the author of Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead (one of President Barak Obama’s favorite books, by the way).  Robinson is known for her conversational tone and religious sensitivity.

Since I am a sucker for essays, hoping to publish two new books of essays in the next two years, I figure I better read Robinson’s.

9-  Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, by Charles Deweese.  My personal history with this book is an interesting one.  Soon after I purchase it, about seven years ago, I lent it to my father-in-law, who was interested in how in the world Trinity Baptist made women deacons.

For some reason, he misplaced the book and it had been lost since then.  He and my mother-in-law just sold their house and moved here to Vero Beach.  In the packing and unpacking, the book turned up.  I hope to get a chance to read it, finally!

10-  Moby Dick, by Herman Mellville.  At the beginning of last year, friends and I joined an informal movement called “Sixteen books in 2016.”  We even devoted a Facebook group page to it.

This book was on my list, and, with the move to Vero and all, I never got around to it.  Maybe this year I will.  Until then, poor Ahab will continue his fateful search for the great White Whale.  I don’t want to leave the guy hanging, so I’ll try to make it my summer beach reading fare.  Beach + whale.  Sounds like a winning combination.

11-  Something about Henry Flagler.  I went to a college on Flagler Drive, which was across the bridge from the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Kristina and I went to St. Augustine for our honeymoon, and have visited many times since, including touring Flagler College.   What does all of this have in common?  Henry Flagler, the industrialist tycoon who founded Standard Oil and connected Florida by rail.  I’m sure there is a biography on him that I’ll pick up along the way.