If You Really Want to Make Your Pastor’s Day

Barry HowardHere’s a timely post from my friend Barry Howard, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.

Last week, as more and more cards and notes appeared in my inbox, in my mailbox, and on my desk, all thanking me for serving as their minister, I began to wonder if someone had announced my retirement without my knowledge, or if I looked a little discouraged and folks were just trying to lift my spirits. In my momentary amnesia, I had forgotten that October is promoted by many as Pastor Appreciation Month.

Through the years I have been blessed to “feel” appreciated by the core membership of the congregations I have served. But I’m pretty sure that is not the universal experience of pastors. I am told by my counselor friends that many clergy are highly discouraged and often teeter on the brink of depression.

I readily acknowledge that there are a few slackers among us, as there are in every career field, but most of the pastors I know work hard and feel a deep sense of responsibility for their flock. Because the multiple roles within the pastoral vocation uniquely initiate a minister into almost every conceivable life situation (as well as a few inconceivable ones), a pastor’s work from one day to the next can fluctuate between affirmation and discouragement.

Although the biblical job description of a pastor portrays one who is called to “nurture, lead, and guide,” in our culture of hyper-mobility and competing loyalties, ministry can seem more like “herding cats” than “shepherding sheep.”

What is the best way to show appreciation to your pastor? Included in the stack of cards I have received, there is a Starbucks gift card, pictures drawn by a children’s Sunday School class, and hand-written notes thanking me for “that time when” I was there when grandpa passed away, when junior got married, or when the baby was born. Through the years I have been the recipient of all kinds of tokens of appreciation, including jars of homemade jam, home-canned pickles, home-cooked cakes and pies, fresh baked bread, or garden-picked vegetables.

While I can’t speak for every pastor, here is what makes me feel the most appreciated: Faithful participation in the life of the church. For me, nothing can be quite as emotionally deflating as working hard all week, then getting to church on Sunday to discover that a high percentage of my flock is at the beach, on the boat, in the mountains, on the golf course, at the soccer game, or just sleeping in. And nothing can be quite as encouraging as working hard all week, and getting to church to see a faithful congregation of believers who have gathered to worship God.

Early in my ministry, I suppose I took it for granted that church members would be fairly faithful, especially in worship and Bible study. Now, even among historically devoted church members, participation in the life of the church is too often determined by convenience than by conviction and commitment.

This is Pastor Appreciation Month. Your pastor will appreciate your cards and notes, and jams and jellies. But if you really want your pastor to feel appreciated, be an active and faithful participant in your spiritual community. When I witness someone get connected and engaged in the synergy of God’s mission through the church, as a pastor, that makes my day.

KOH2RVA: Day 284

Jay McNeal3I had lunch with Jay McNeal yesterday, my former intern, who is now a fully ordained Master of Divinity. I told him shortly before he graduated from seminary that I couldn’t afford to hire him, but I could give him a job, and that’s how Jay became First Baptist’s “Microchurch Pastor.”

I’ve been talking about Microchurch for a few years now. Here’s the way I explained it to our television viewers in October, 2010.

Often when I’m out and about I bump into someone who says they watch our worship services on TV. Sometimes they tell me that they go to the early service at their own church and then hurry home to watch, and although I’m honored, I secretly wonder if that’s not overdoing it a little (smile). But sometimes they tell me First Baptist is their only church, and although they never actually come to our building, they watch every week. If you are one of those people, then this message is for you.

I want to invite you to take part in something we’re calling “Microchurch,” a bold new initiative of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Here’s how it works. Before next Sunday, think of one or two friends who might be able to come watch the broadcast with you. Invite them to bring food—something simple and easy—so that after the service is over you can sit down and eat Sunday lunch together. After lunch take time to share your concerns with one another, and then ask someone to lift those concerns up to God in prayer. Finally, take up an offering, and talk about how you might use it to put God’s love into action right where you are—in your subdivision, your retirement center, your apartment complex, or your neighborhood. If it works, try it again the next week, and then the week after that. Make it a regular habit. Give it a name. And remember, it doesn’t have to be big to be church. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also” (Mt. 18:20).

Our hope is to start 200 new Microchurches in the next year, and I’d like to ask for your help. I’m not asking for your money, just your participation. I believe that when Jesus asked his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven, he really meant it. But it’s going to take all of us to bring heaven to earth, and not just the people who come to worship in our building. I understand that some 20,000 people watch our services on Sunday morning. If only one percent of those people would accept this challenge we would have those 200 Microchurches I’m talking about, and we might have them not by next year, but by next week. As those churches start working with us to put God’s love into action I believe heaven will come a little closer to earth, and that those of you who join us in our mission will become part of the answer to the Lord’s prayer.

That was in 2010. What I’ve learned since then is that we don’t have any way of knowing how many Microchurches are out there. There may be 200. There may be 2,000. And so I’ve asked Jay if he can help us figure out how many there are and how we can encourage and sustain them as they work with us to bring heaven to earth. I’ve challenged Jay to start 500 new Microchurches in the next year, almost as a dare, and he has accepted the challenge. There was a moment during yesterday’s lunch when I realized he was serious. I had asked him to visit a Microchurch next week and maybe another one the week after that. He said, “But there are 52 Sundays in a year. If we’re trying to start 500 new Microchurches I’m going to have to visit a lot more than that.”

You go, Jay.

I’m sure he’ll figure it out, but in the meantime consider this. If you looked at a map of Central Virginia next year and saw 500 new dots on the map—500 more places where people are working to bring heaven to earth—wouldn’t you be encouraged? Wouldn’t you think that it was beginning to happen, that God’s kingdom was coming, and God’s will was being done,

On earth as it is in heaven?

KOH2RVA: Day 246

mother's dayYesterday was Mother’s Day, and a glorious one here in Richmond, with a high of 72 degrees and sunny skies, and children of all ages accompanying their mothers to church and taking them out to brunch afterward. I knew it was Mother’s Day. I even knew it was the fifth anniversary of my ministry at First Baptist Church. But I didn’t know Lee Hilbert was going to acknowledge that publicly.

Lee is the chair of our personnel team, and at the end of the 8:30 service he asked if he could make an announcement but he didn’t tell me what it was. That kind of thing can make a pastor nervous, especially if he’s preached on sensitive topics recently. But Lee quickly made it obvious that he was doing what First Baptist has been doing for decades: recognizing staff members on significant anniversaries.

He read a letter he had written that included this paragraph: “We are thankful that you love the Lord Jesus and that you have a heart for sharing the Word of God with others. Creating a new awareness within the congregation by emphasizing bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia (KOH2RVA) has been a wonderful way to encourage all of us to put the words of our Lord into action. It is also something that is easily understood by both members of the church and seekers beyond the walls of First Baptist Church.”

Now, Lee didn’t have to say that, but he did, and I’m grateful. And the congregation didn’t have to stand and applaud, but they did, and a lump rose in my throat that made it hard for me to say thank you. As Lee pointed out at the 11:00 service, it’s one of the few times he’s known me to be at a loss for words. But what do you say to people like that, who forgive you for preaching on sensitive topics, and join you in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth, and give you a bonus check just for being with them for five years?

I think I know, now, how some of those mothers felt yesterday, when their children tried to thank them for their motherhood. “I should be thanking you!” they might have said. Because being a mother is both a joy and an honor.

Just like being a pastor.

KOH2RVA: Day 211

argument-380x258I had coffee yesterday with a pastor from the area who said some unkind things about me in one of his recent blog posts. A friend in town asked me if I had seen it. I hadn’t, but when I read it my first thought was, “Well, this man just doesn’t know me!”

So, I called him and asked if we could have coffee sometime, and that’s what we ended up doing yesterday afternoon, at the Starbucks on the corner of Broad and Bowe.

The conversation was cordial. We spent some time talking about our families and about our ministry, but eventually we got around to the subject of his blog post, which was the recent decision by the Richmond Baptist Association to allow Ginter Park Baptist Church to maintain its membership, even though it had ordained an openly gay man to the ministry. His argument was that by speaking up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I had affirmed gay ordination.

I didn’t see it that way at all.

I told him that what I was speaking up for was missional partnership, and that it was something that had been reinforced through KOH2RVA. On this year-long, every-member mission trip I have discovered that there are a number of other churches, organizations, and agencies that have a similar mission—in their own ways they, too, are working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, for example, just across the street from First Baptist, has a food pantry for hungry and homeless people. St. Mark’s does church differently than First Baptist. They have some different beliefs than First Baptist. But one of the things we agree on is that hungry and homeless people need to be fed; we both see it as a way of bringing heaven to earth.

So, do we have to agree on everything in order to work together? Not at all, at least not where feeding hungry people is concerned. But I wouldn’t invite the rector of St. Mark’s to teach a class on our core beliefs at First Baptist and he wouldn’t invite me to do that at St. Mark’s. Our beliefs are different enough that it wouldn’t be helpful.

So I was telling this pastor as we had coffee yesterday that I didn’t think we had to agree with everything Ginter Park did in order to partner with them in mission—sending inner-city kids to Camp Alkulana in the summer, for example, seemed like something we could both get behind.

But he didn’t see it that way.

He talked about tribal identity, and said that what Ginter Park had done really put them outside the boundaries of the Baptist “tribe,” and that they could no longer be considered part of us. For that reason we could no longer work together; we were too different.

He had a point. I’m guessing he wouldn’t invite the pastor of Ginter Park to teach a class on core beliefs at his church, and the pastor of Ginter Park probably wouldn’t invite him to teach that class at hers. But couldn’t they agree that inner-city kids need to go to Camp Alkulana in the summer, and couldn’t they pool their resources to that end? Do we have to agree on everything in order to work together?

I’m afraid that what’s going to suffer in this dispute is not his church or her church, but those inner-city kids. And isn’t that always the way it is? We Christians start arguing about doctrine and neglect our mission,

And children suffer,
And people go hungry,
And the good news isn’t shared,

And Jesus sighs.

KOH2RVA: Day 158

ShawarmaYesterday was Ash Wednesday, and often on that day I fast—that is, I “go without food for religious reasons.” Last year, for example, I promised myself that every time I felt a hunger pain on Ash Wednesday I would think “Jesus is Lord,” to remind myself that my stomach is not.

I was going to do that again yesterday but when I checked my calendar I saw that I had already made plans to have lunch at the Old Jerusalem restaurant, and so I shrugged my shoulders and let out a half-hearted sigh. “Looks like I’m not going to be able to fast today,” I said, to no one in particular. “I forgot that it was Ash Wednesday when I made the appointment and now it’s too late. I can’t very well call off lunch, and it would be rude to sit there and watch my guest eat while I didn’t.”

Plus, I love the Old Jerusalem.

It’s near the intersection of 7th and Franklin downtown, just a few steps up the hill and to your left. There’s a sign on the front door that says “Halal,” which is the Muslim equivalent of “Kosher.” One of the things I love about the restaurant is that you can take your Muslim or Jewish neighbors there without any fear of offending their dietary restrictions. There’s no pork on the menu, and no alcohol either. Everything is prepared according to the traditions of the Middle East, which is home to both Muslims and Jews.

For all of those reasons, it’s where I usually meet with my interfaith group. We sit at a big table near the window, and the owner brings out platters of hummus and warm pita bread to get us started. Soon we are munching on (delicious!) falafel, digging into hearty beef and chicken shawarma, and finishing up with hot tea and “ladies fingers” for dessert. Throughout the meal we are talking and laughing and making wild gestures, often to the servers to bring us more food. It’s fun.

Which is part of the reason I was there yesterday.

The owner, a smiling, gregarious Jordanian named Tahir, wants to renovate the restaurant. He wants to create the kind of ambiance that will attract the dinner crowd (right now the Old Jerusalem looks a whole lot more like a lunch place than a dinner place). But it’s going to cost some money and he’s having trouble getting a loan. He was in the construction business before this and went bankrupt when the economy crashed in 2008.

That’s where Jeff Dortch comes in.

Jeff is a member of First Baptist Church who used to be a banker. One of the things he does is consult with church members who have fallen on hard times. He takes a look at their finances and helps them come up with strategies to get back on their feet. I took him to lunch with me to see if he had any suggestions for Tahir.

Tahir greeted us with a smile. He seated us at a booth. He asked the waitress to bring out some hummus and warm pita. And then he told Jeff his story, complete with his plans for renovation. You could see his eyes sparkle as he described the stonework, the arches, and the fountain he hoped to put against one wall. When he went back to the kitchen Jeff told me quietly that restaurants were notoriously bad investments. He wasn’t sure he would be able to help Tahir. But he also agreed, as he took another bite, that the falafel was delicious.

Why am I telling this story on the 158th day of KOH2RVA, our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia? Because my friend Imad Damaj (a VCU professor) knew a Muslim brother who was struggling to keep his restaurant going. He invited Bill Sachs (an Episcopal priest) and me (a Baptist pastor) to join him for lunch. He introduced us to Tahir and asked if we knew any way to help. I got in touch with Jeff Dortch and took him to lunch at the Old Jerusalem.

I don’t know what will come of it all, if anything, but at the heart of it is one person trying to help another, and reaching out through friendship to another person, and then another. It’s the stuff the parable of the Good Samaritan is made of,

And the stuff of which heaven is made.


Click HERE to see the Yelp! reviews of the Old Jerusalem, remembering that there will be at least one crank in every bunch who loves to complain.  And think about this: if you’ve ever been to the Holy Land consider hosting a reunion lunch or dinner at the Old Jerusalem.  As the sign above the door says, it’s “A Taste of the Holy Land.”

Guest Blogger: Jim Flamming

Jim Flamming was pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for 23 years.  It was during his tenure that the television ministry began, and soon the church and its gifted preacher were known throughout the region.  Since his retirement, Dr. Flamming has focused on three things: teaching, praying, and writing.  He is currently serving as a professor of preaching at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, as Pastor Emeritus of First Baptist Church (and leader of our Empowering Prayer Team), and recently published a book called Healing the Heartbreak of Grief.

Jim Flamming has been a regular source of encouragement to me, and along the way he has become a good friend.  I asked him if he would consider sharing some thoughts about dealing with grief during the holiday season, and he gladly agreed.  I hope you will learn from what he has written and forward it to your friends and relatives whose hearts are heavy at Christmas.


The Invisible Christmas Basket of Grief
by Dr. Peter James Flamming

Gifts come in many forms at Christmas. I’ve noticed lots of baskets appear during this season – baskets with flowers, with food, with beautifully wrapped gifts to put under the tree. There is another basket, the invisible basket of grief. One who has always before joined in the celebration is absent. For many, Christmas is a mixed batch of memories, joy, and grief.

Those who have never been there may not understand the silent inner pain of loss. There is a “neveragainness” about grief – never again to be with that person around the tree, or to see the joy of their face when a gift has been opened, or the laughter at the Christmas dinner. Absent is the voice that blessed the food at the dinner table, or the smile when the Christmas story was read, or the fun of getting the tree put up and decorated. It is the “neveragainness” of grief.

Does anything help us with our grief at Christmas? I think so. These three have helped me and you may find them helpful as well:

First, try replacing the sharp edges of grief with the soft memories of gratitude. While what has been can never return, there are priceless memories that no one can take from you. They are treasures. Claim them. Remember them. Give thanks to God for them. No one else on the face of the earth has those memories. Embrace them as only you can. 

Second, when the sharp pains of loss overwhelm you, spend a little quiet time turning the trauma into a prayerful tribute. The loss you feel is a tribute to the one you have lost, and to the relationship you enjoyed. It is a tribute to the memories that dwell within you and are not erased. It is a quiet even spiritual hug for the love you had and still have for the person you so cherished. In our troubled world, the relationship you shared needs to be treasured and saluted. When your head is bowed in grief, lift up your head with tears in your eyes, and salute the years that you had together.

Third, do something. There is healing in tasking. In early grief the rule is, “just do the next thing.” Do what? Whatever needs doing. Pay bills, wash the dishes, make the bed, make the phone call. In later months and years add a new dimension, particularly appropriate at Christmas time. Do something for someone else. It is a small shadow of what our Lord did for us at Christmas, but it has the same love of Christ motivating it.

Finally, Christmas is not only for the joyful. Christmas is for healing the broken hearted. As we gather around the manger of our Lord, we can blend the pain that we feel with the healing we embrace. Christmas has many baskets, including grief, but none is so powerful as the basket that includes the manger, the Christ, and the hope that He brings.

After the Vote

If things go as planned, the deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church will vote on the question of baptism and church membership at their next meeting, and if the motion carries it will be forwarded to the congregation for a vote.  That’s how Baptists do these things; neither the pastor nor the deacons make the final decision: the people do.  While I was the one who raised the question of why we re-baptize Christians from other denominations, and while the deacons have spent a year or so discussing it, in the end it will be up to the congregation to determine the requirements for membership at First Baptist.

We call this “local church autonomy,” and it is one of our cherished Baptist freedoms.  No pope, bishop, or pastor tells us what to do; we get to determine our own mission and ministry, and in this case our own membership.  Now we’re getting close to a vote, and some people are getting anxious.  “This is going to split the church!” they say.  I don’t think it will, and I’ll tell you why.  We are following a slow, careful process of discernment that has some built-in checks and balances.  Although the congregation will make the final decision the deacons are trying to provide the kind of leadership that will avoid anything as dramatic as a church split.  The vote they take at their next meeting, for example, will give them some guidance as to how they might proceed. 

Let me suggest some possible scenarios:

Scenario One: At their May meeting, the deacons vote on a motion to accept Christians from other denominations as full members without requiring them to be re-baptized.  The motion fails.  The deacons report back to the congregation by saying that although the discussion has helped us think more deeply about what it means to be a member and what it means to be baptized, we will not be changing our membership requirements.

Scenario Two: The motion carries, but by such a slim margin the deacons choose not to take it to the congregation for a vote, believing it would be too divisive.  They do, however, ask the congregation to consider some other matters that have come up in this discussion.  For example: asking all new members to attend the Connections class, or allowing Watchcare members to vote on church issues, or welcoming those baptized as believers even if it was by a mode other than immersion.

Scenario Three: The motion carries, decisively, and the deacons select a date for a congregational vote.  The motion is made available to the membership for study, reflection, and prayer.  The congregation is given at least two opportunities to discuss the motion publicly.  On a given Sunday the church votes by secret ballot at the conclusion of each morning worship service.  The vote is counted by the deacons that afternoon and the results made public as soon as possible thereafter. 

There are other possible scenarios, of course; I’m only speculating.  But if we end up with something like Scenario Three then, whether the motion carries or fails, we will have made the decision together, and it is my prayer that we would live with the outcome together.  If it fails I will be disappointed, obviously; I think I have made my position clear.  But at the same time I will be proud of the church for having considered this issue so carefully and thoughtfully, and I will know a little better who we are.  If it carries there will be no raucous celebration in the streets, just a quiet recognition that we have opened the doors of membership a little wider.  And I would hope that those who voted against the motion would wait to see how it impacts the church.

On a Sunday after the vote, and perhaps even the next Sunday, I will enter the baptistry with someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ, and dip him down under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Some in the church will breathe a sigh of relief, seeing that we haven’t abandoned our way of making disciples, that we still baptize believers by immersion, just as we always have.  Others will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we really are doing this “to fulfill all righteousness” (as it says above our baptistry), and not simply to fulfill a membership requirement. 

And while I wouldn’t expect a flood of people to come forward at the end of the service there may be some who have been under our watchcare for years now who would want to become members.  I think we might be surprised by who they are, and how much we already think of them as “family.”  Suppose we come to the end of the day and say, “Oh, so that’s what ‘open membership’ means”?

“Well.  That’s not so bad.”