They won't forget that one!

From time to time, every pastor I know finds himself discouraged because people never remember what he says. We labor for hours every week to study the Scripture and preach a sermon or teach a lesson that is meaningful and applicable to those we have the privilege of serving. But studies show that the average person on the average Sunday will remember around 20 percent of what you say on Monday morning; and it goes downhill from there.

I know which 20 percent they singles at McKinney will remember from yesterday's lesson.

If you've been reading since January, you know that our Young Adults Ministry is reading and studying through the New Testament in 2008. Yesterday, my task was to cover the book of Galatians in 35 minutes.

Now, it's pretty fun to talk about circumcision in any church environment - you don't need any kind of opening story to catch peoples' attention (and you definitely don't need a visual aide). You just say the word "circumcision," and people are with you.

The lesson yesterday was going pretty well right up until 5:9 where Paul reminds the Galatians that adding even a little bit of legalism completely ruins grace by saying "A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough."

So, I pointed out that the reference was back to the Passover where the Israelites were supposed to eat in a hurry and didn't have time to wait for the yeast to rise, so they made bread without yeast - crackers. Then, my plan was to say, "And if you even get a little bit of yeast in your dough, you end up with freaky puffed-up crackers..." only, that's not what I said.

Yep. I dropped the F-bomb in church yesterday. I had my own little "pitched tents" moment in our Young Singles ministry, although I think I recovered a bit more gracefully than the other guy. It's kind of a weird thing to be dying, wishing you could get back on the topic of circumcision!

It's a funny balance to be able to take your ministry seriously without taking yourself too seriously. Fortunately, we've got a group of young singles who help that by laughing with me instead of sending me hateful emails. All pastors should be so fortunate.

Family Friday

For the past couple of weeks I've been using Blog Fridays to talk about my family. I'm anticipating that when the baby gets here, Friday will be the day for gratuitous proud-dad-pictures. But I also consider my ministry at church as an extension of my ministry at home, so talking about one almost inevitably leads me to talk about the other.

One of the things that has been important to Kari and I from the day we got married is the concept that we have been a family since July 17th, 2004. We're not "starting a family" now that she's expecting - we've been a family for almost 4 years.

I know it seems like a tomato/tomahto deal, but I think the language is important.

When God created the first family in the Garden, He placed two people together - husband and wife - and pronounced that from that point on, "a man should leave his father and mother, and cling to his wife," resulting in a single new unit (Genesis 2:24).

Kari and I have been a family for a few years now, and when baby Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz shows up, we will be adding to the family - not starting a new one.

The language is important because it's important to be precise when you're talking about anything God does. It's also important when it comes to priorities in your family. I do a lot of marriage counseling for people who abandon each other in favor of their kiddos. When they do, they abandon their family rather than saving it. The best thing you can do for your kids is to love their parent. Why? Because when you abandon the foundation of the family, for any reason, you lose all the stability.

Finally, it's important to be precise for sensitivity reasons. An increasing number of young adults are struggling with infertility these days. There are enough things in these families' lives to cause discouragement; we don't need to add to it by insinuating their marriage/family is not complete without children - especially when our language is incorrect.

If you're not married, you still function as a part of your mom and dad's family. When you marry, you don't go into family-limbo until you have a kid. When you say "I do," a new family begins. Children are a blessing from the Lord, but as an addition to a family that already existed.

Seasons

I spent a good part of Monday and Tuesday working on a project for a friend of mine who needed me to do some teaching for a video series his church is doing on spiritual growth. I'm using an article I wrote a few years ago talking about how our spiritual growth often mirrors the growth of a plant. One of the points I make in that article is that growth happens in seasons, for plants and for people.

It's Spring, and our tulips are just beginning to sprout and grow. We planted them last fall, almost 6 months ago, but they are just now sprouting. They didn't grow much during the winter - it wasn't the season for growth - so I didn't get frustrated when I didn't see them.

I think growth in the Christian life is the same way. I realized this yesterday when I was flipping through the Bible I used in college. That was a tremendous time of Spiritual growth for me. I had keen spiritual insights on a fairly regular basis, Scripture popped off the page when I read it, and I had a very real sense that my Christian life was thriving.

The last year or so hasn't been that way. Sometimes I feel like I'm truly laboring in the Scriptures when I'm preparing a sermon. I don't get those "aha" moments as frequently, or with the same intensity. And I don't feel like my observations are as sharp as they were a few years ago.

What's changed? Honestly, not much. To my knowledge there's no unconfessed sin in my life. I'm not extraordinarily worn down, or out of gas. There have been changes in my life, but none that would cause a "drought" in my spiritual growth. I think it has just been a time when God was working on me in different ways, most of which haven't necessarily been as obvious to me as they were in college. But something is happening...

One of the worst things people do during seasons where growth is not obvious is to stop all the things that led to growth in the first place. You can forget to water the tulips during the winter because you can't see them growing - similarly, you can stop good habits during the off-season of growth in your life because you don't see anything happening. The only thing that does is ensure that you're not ready for the season of growth when it comes back around.

If you're in a low growth time, don't be discouraged, and don't quit doing the right things. Just like a plant, you need the right nourishment and the right environment to grow. Sacrifice those and you will wither and die. Stay faithful, do what you can, and take heart; the seasons always change.

Consumer vs. Investor

I intended to blog about something else today, but had a conversation this morning I wanted to share. What's funny about the conversation today is that it directly reflects something we talked about in Bible Study last night with the young married group, so it was fresh on my mind.

Got a phone call this morning from a guy looking for a church. He's been a part of another church in Fort Worth for several years, but is (in his words) "looking for a change," and wanted to talk to me about whether or not McKinney might be a good fit.

Hearing him tell me he's "looking for a change" led me to ask him what it was about the other church - a really good church in the area - that caused him to think he needs to break fellowship there and worship somewhere else.

He replied, "I'm just not getting anything out of it anymore."

It didn't take me long to tell him he probably wouldn't be a good fit at McKinney.

See, the people who fit best at McKinney, and in our young adults ministry, are the people who see themselves as investors, not consumers. Consumers are primarily worried about what they can get, while the investors' primary role is to give. Consumers usually stick around McKinney for a year or two. They "get a lot out of it" for a while. But once they've picked over our ministries, and sampled every possible Bible Study, there's nothing more for them to "get." So they move on to the next best thing.

I don't see any place in Scripture where even a secondary function of the Church is for people to receive a service. I see a lot of places where we're called to give our lives worshipping God and investing in others.

I'll let you in on a little secret that you might have already experienced: It's the investor, not the consumer who gets the most in the end. It works in the business world just like it works in the church. I consume Taco Bueno almost every day of the week, but I'm not an investor in Taco Bueno, so I don't reap the long-term benefits of my consumption. I show up for a service, receive my service, and leave full, but minus $5.86. The investor takes his $5.86 and invests it in making sure Taco Bueno remains the best fast-food Mexican food on the planet, and receives a return on his investment. Then, Taco Bueno is thriving, the investor is full, and he has more money to invest. Easy math says it's always better to be an investor than a consumer.

Our church won't make it if we simply attract consumers. We have to have investors - people who look for a church where their primary focus is giving their time, talents, and treasures. Those are the people who end up being a good fit at McKinney. Because that's what we breathe here.

Moving Past The Past

I was doing my language work yesterday for a sermon I'm preaching in a couple of weeks on Acts 20:13-38 where Paul says goodbye to the Ephesian elders, and I stumbled on something I think is pretty impressive.

In Acts 20:19, Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that he served them with "great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews."

Paul mentions these plots here, in 1 Corinthians 15:30-32; 16:9, and 2 Corinthians 1:8-10. But he doesn't go into details in any of those passages. We have no idea exactly what the Jews plotted against him. We just know that it tested Paul severely, and that he passed the test.

Now, I don't know about you, but when people plot against me, I like to make sure everyone else knows what they did. I want people to appreciate the lengths to which I've gone in order to overcome people who wish to do me harm. It's hard not to name names and make sure everyone else knows the trouble I've seen.

Paul never does that. He never complains about the circumstances. He never goes into the plot. He doesn't name names. He deals with the issue (apparently with those Jews themselves), and moves on. When he does bring it up, it's only with such a passing mention we would miss it if we weren't looking for it.

Too many of us are so caught up in rectifying the past that we can't ever move forward to the future. We can't help bringing the past up, even if the "past" happened years ago - even if the problem has been solved by now. But Paul has moved on. He reminds the Ephesian elders of the issue in the past only so much as to remind them to be grateful for where they are now (20:22-24), and where they will go in the future (20:25-35).

Seems like a good lesson for all of us.

Preaching: Topical or Not?

I had a good conversation last week with some guys who were asking about preaching philosophy. Should we preach topical sermons or expositional sermons (where you preach primarily passage by passage through entire books)?

In short, my answer to them was "yes." (If the topic bores you, now you know and can move on without reading any more).

I think as pastors we have a responsibility to help people grasp Scripture in such a way that they're able to understand and apply it themselves. If all we ever do is sermons that are solely topical: "How to have a better Family" or "How to Win at Work," but never help people understand Scripture in its context, we run the risk of stunting their growth. Not that family life and winning at work aren't good things, but the whole principle of giving a man fish vs. teaching a man how to fish applies here.

If we're not helping people know how to understand and apply Scripture in its original context on Sundays, we're fighting a losing battle. There aren't enough Sundays in the year to hand feed people the application they need to be well-rounded Christians. In some sense, preaching needs to expose people enough to the process of understanding Scripture that they can replicate it on Monday and Tuesday during their own personal times.

The other challenge to be wary of when we limit sermons only to topical sermons is that we run the risk of missing the point... the point of the Scripture is not simply how to have a great life here. A large focus of Scripture is on the reality that this isn't all there is, so our application and vision need to point our eyes to something bigger than just life this week.

On the other hand, there can be a danger in spending 4 years preaching verse by verse through the Gospel of John. Our congregation knows John, but misses a bigger view of Scripture. And that can lead to stunted growth too, when our people know how many times the Greek word pisteuo is used in John, but couldn't tell you what the Bible says about the challenge their family is facing this week. The trees are great, but the forest as a whole is spectacular as well.

I think there has to be a balance somewhere. Topical sermons must be preached in such a way that the congregation understands the teaching of the text rather than just the creativity of the pastor. Expository (passage-by-passage) sermons must be preached in such a way that the timeless depth of Scripture is exposed as alive and powerful our lives today.

Family Friday

I spent a lot of time this week talking about how I protect my relationship with my wife. For those of you who don't know our story, we think it's a pretty good illustration of the "what God has joined together" thing.

Both of us graduated from Oklahoma State University. Both of us went to the same church throughout college. I knew several girls in her sorority house pretty well - I even dated one of them for a while. Both of us took "Family Development" together in the same room, same semester, same time, same professor. We lived about two blocks from each other, frequented the same Stillwater, OK haunts, and have several mutual friends from college. Our dad's even went to Oklahoma State together and have pictures of the two of them together at various college events. And both Kari and I had this idea in our heads that we would go to college, meet our future spouse, get married the weekend after graduation and live happily ever after. But we never met.

Both of us reached our senior year in panicked. We approached graduation without having found our future spouse. And both of us set out for Dallas Theological Seminary with a very real feeling that we would never find the person we would spend the rest of our life with.

The very first day of freshman orientation, being a fairly bright guy, I found the cutest girl in the room and sat down next to her. And the rest is history.

Looking back, if Kari had known me in college, she wouldn't have liked me. If I had known Kari in college, I wouldn't have made time for her. If we had met on one of the countless numbers of times we passed each other on campus or in the halls of our church, things most certainly wouldn't have worked out. Knowing what we know now...

It's easy on this side of things, but it was pretty difficult as we approached graduation and God's provision didn't work on our timetable. And now that Kari and I get to work with young adult singles, from time to time we have to resist the urge to smile when a young single person expresses his or her discouragement with not having found that "special someone," knowing she might have just passed him on the way in...

Protecting Purity - Part 4

The last part of protecting purity for this week is more of an all-encompassing challenge. Kari and I tell couples in our premarital counseling that this is one of the secrets to divorce-proofing your marriage. It works for the marriages of pastors, bankers, custodians, administrative assistants, and every other designation you can come up with for yourself. If both of you follow this easy-sounding piece of advice, Kari and I promise you will take a huge step in divorce-proofing your marriage.

Keep the best between you two.

That's it. Sounds easy huh? It's not.

What we mean is: no matter what it is in your life, make sure you reserve the best for your spouse. Your best conversations, the best part of your day, your best information, your best effort, your best everything.

If you get to the point where you inventory your life and realize you're constantly saving the best for someone else - whether that be a friend, parent, boss, sibling, chat room, child, or anything else - you're headed down a dangerous road. No, you probably won't commit sexual sin with those people (though it's possible), but you're establishing a fissure in the relationship with your spouse that leaves you vulnerable when other temptation does come.

Make sure you and your spouse keep the best between you. Protect your purity. The stakes are too high.

Protecting Purity - Part 3

There's a lot of talk among Christians concerning the affects of Pastor Sex Scandals on an unbelieving world. The unbelieving world sees professional representatives of Christianity who can't keep their pants on as one more indication that Christianity isn't as powerful as Christians claim. And you rarely talk to non-Christians who don't mention pastor immorality as one of the top couple of problems with Christianity today. If you can't trust pastors behind closed doors, why should you trust a thing any of them say from the pulpit? It's a big issue with the Church's testimony to an unbelieving world.

But I can't help but think that the epidemic of pastor immorality has an affect on our wives as well. When they see Ted Haggard's wife standing next to him in the pulpit, there has to be a little part of them that is tweaked just a bit. So a lot of the steps I take to protect my purity are also to put such a hedge of protection in place that my wife never has to wonder if she'll be next. As important as it is for the unbelieving world to see an example of purity in the pulpit, it is twice as important for our spouse's to have confidence beyond a shadow of a doubt that their husband is protecting purity.

Yesterday I talked about the Internet. Today, an area that a lot of pastor's fall: either in staff relationships with the opposite sex, or counseling relationships with the opposite sex. Here are a couple of steps I'd encourage you to take to make sure nobody (including your wife) is able to even wonder about your sexual purity.

1. I never counsel women as individuals more than once without my wife present. Maybe it's just me, but I have serious doubts that any pastor is such a great counselor that a woman just has to see him and can't visit with anyone else. If that's you, you're not doing a good enough job of empowering women on your staff and in your church who can speak truth into other women's lives.

2. I work diligently to never be alone with a woman who is not my wife in public or private. The private part is easy to understand. The public part may not be as much. But I'm at a large enough church in a visible enough position that there are people in the community who I don't know, but who know me. And the last thing I would ever want is for someone to see the pastor sitting at Starbucks with a woman who is not my wife. That could spread like wildfire in the rumor mill, and ultimately would get back to my wife. And though my wife trusts me one-hundred percent, those types of rumors can't help but plant a seed of doubt in her mind that she doesn't need.

3. When those things happen by accident, I call my wife and an elder immediately. When I first started working at McKinney, I had a meeting at Starbucks with two of our single girl leaders to plan a singles retreat. I showed up early, and so did one of the others. So, for about 10 minutes it was just the two of us. As soon as she walked in, I excused myself to the restroom and called my wife and one of the elders to let them know what was going on. Yes, I bothered them both at work. I want them to always hear it from me, and to make certain that there is never any doubt in their minds.

4. I'm never at the office alone with another woman - staff or otherwise. Some mornings I arrive to the office before anyone else arrives. Some nights I'm the last one to leave. But any time it appears I'm going to be the only person here, I leave. Yes, sometimes that means I have to leave before I finish my work. Yes, it means sometimes I'm inconvenienced. But I'd rather be inconvenienced by having to finish up some work tomorrow than to be inconvenienced by temptation or accusation today.

Again, the steps you take may seem drastic. They may seem obsessive-compulsive. They may even at times seem un-pastoral. But the reputation of Christianity among unbelievers, and your trust level with your wife is absolutely, completely, totally, one-hundred percent worth a little obsessive compulsion.

Protecting Purity - Bonus Post

Mark Beeson is the lead pastor at Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana. He's recently started blogging, and generally has solid, thought-through insights. Today's blog entry parallels what has been on my heart this week so well I couldn't wait until tomorrow to post it. Here's his advice to young people:

"Luke 8:17 says: "For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light."

Don't think you'll have no reactions to your actions.

Don't think others will miss that you are missing.

Don't believe your secrets are a secret.

What you do will be known. Where you go will be reported. What you say will be recorded.

Your choice of friends will serve as the measure of your ability to choose wisely.

So I'll offer the following for my young friends. These thoughts may help you make good choices today so you are positioned for success tomorrow.

1. Don't take your clothes off and take your picture. If your clothes are off take a shower.

2. Don't write an email to your friends with the subject line, "For your eyes only." If you write an email assume it will be seen by everyone everywhere forever.

3. Someone is taking your picture with their cell phone right now. Sit pretty. Stand up straight. Don't slouch. Head up. Chin down. Smile, you're on candid camera.

4. If you want to win American Idol don't think flaunting your past as a male stripper will win you points with Simon. In fact, I suggest you avoid stripping altogether.

5. Someone will surprise you in the future with these words, "Hi. I've heard all about you." Do what's right and you won't have to break into a free sweat while looking around for a quick exit. Your reputation always precedes you. You're under observation.

6. If you plan to be a state governor avoid affairs, cheating, lying and betrayal. Sexual infidelity doesn't instill confidence.

7. People are watching you and your friends. Those on surveillance assume you make decisions based on your values. You'll be associated with your associates. Maxwell was correct. "The people around you determine your level of success." They also effect your electability.

8. It's a small planet. We're not trying to get away from "bad" people. We're trying to bring "up there down here" for all people.

People are watching to see if that is what you are doing. Their trust and confidence will be established by what they observe. Live today so you'll have no regrets tomorrow."

Protecting Purity - Part 2

The Internet pornography industry is a multi-billion (with a "b") dollar business. According to some researchers, there are more pornographic websites online than all other types of website combined. Most everyone will tell you that any average web-surfer is only two clicks away from free hardcore pornography. And for many of my friends, even those in ministry, that temptation is more than they can bear.

But pornography is not the only danger to purity on the Worldwide Web. There are Internet sites to help you cheat on your spouse by signing you up for an answering service that will pretend to be a hotel where you've gone for a business meeting, Internet sites that will arrange an "escort" for your evening on the town, and websites that will allow you to conceal your identity while you carry on romantic chats with the opposite sex.

Again, as believers we have a responsibility to set the moral pace for the rest of the world to follow. And for those of us who are pastors, we have an even greater responsibility to remain above reproach in this area. So here are a couple of ideas for protecting your purity.

1. Have every computer in a public room with a screen that faces the door. No exceptions. I do this in my house, in my office, and even when I work on my laptop in Starbucks. Make sure everyone can always see what you're doing. At the very least, this will help you avoid ever being accused of impropriety. If your office or home computer is setup where nobody can see what you're doing, move it. Today.

2. Give your spouse, or a trusted friend your email and login passwords. The idea isn't that they'll check your email for you; the idea is that they could. Kari has every single email password, as well as my login information for facebook, and message boards I participate in. She could check my deleted emails, my sent items, and anything else she wants if she ever gets the urge. That's a layer of accountability for me, and a layer of comfort for her. We both need that.

3. Never delete your browsing history. If someone wants to look at your browsing history, it should go back as far as the history itself will allow that data to go.

4. In "accidental" situations, bring someone else in the loop. A couple of years ago I was working on a project at church when a pornographic image popped up on my screen by accident. I immediately flipped off my monitor and went to my boss to let him know exactly what I had been working on and exactly what happened. Then he and I together called the IT guy to come remove it from my computer. That way, if the spam site ever showed up on a network check, my boss knew and I knew exactly what had happened without ever having to wonder. It would never be just my word against the person who found stuff on my computer. That's not a good scenario, even if you're being honest.

5. If you need an extra level of accountability, subscribe to some type of monitoring service or filter service. XXXChurch.com has a great download that will email your browsing history to someone else for accountability. Other sites have filters in place that will keep you from visiting sites that they deem questionable. These options are only an extra layer of accountability, not an only layer of accountability. We all know that people who are smart enough to work a computer are generally smart enough to figure out workarounds for almost any software that's available... especially when those people are desperate. So apply this step only in addition to the top four suggestions, not in place of them.

When it comes to being a pastor, I'm not the best at much of anything. But this is an area I am completely serious about, because I've seen some of my buddies' lives, marriages, and ministries crash and burn because they didn't do the easy things early enough, and I'm committed to making sure that doesn't happen to me. There's too much at stake in a world that needs to hear about Jesus for one more Christian to fall prey to this garbage.

Protecting Purity - Part 1

Yesterday's sermon at McKinney was from Acts 19:23-41. If you remember the story, there was a silversmith in Ephesus who got crossways with Paul because new converts to Christ weren't buying his idols to Artemis anymore, and the silversmith was about to go out of business. Artemis, the many-breasted nature/fertility goddess, was a god who was worshipped in part by visiting temple prostitutes.

Prostitution has been in the news a lot over the past week or so after Client 9 was revealed to be the government of New York state. And Christian water coolers have been buzzing with condemnations of both Governor Spitzer and Ashley "Kristen" Dupre's behavior, and rightly so.

But as I looked at Acts 19 yesterday in light of the news, I couldn't help but see a challenge to the Church.

If you believe George Gallup, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of Americans say they have trusted Christ. What would happen if 40 to 50 percent of Americans decided to follow Scripture in the area of sex? What would happen if they stopped their magazine subscriptions, stopped their Internet subscriptions, stopped visiting prostitutes, and stopped visiting strip clubs? I can't help but believe that the sex-business-silversmiths would be ready to start a riot because the Christians would put them out of business.

So, this week, I want to talk about some steps I'm taking to try to (a) protect myself, and (b) lead out in this area as a pastor. Even for those of us who don't find ourselves particularly tempted by sexual sin at this point in our lives, Paul reminds us to "be careful, so that we don't fall when we think we're standing" (1 Corinthians 10:12).

I hope it's not a downer series of posts - I don't think it will be. But I do think this area of sexual sin is huge in the church, and I think it starts with pastors. We already know of several prominent pastors who have been outed in this area, which makes me think there are hundreds of pastors at smaller churches who are flying under the radar.

It's not just pastors though. If all of us would be as proactive in this area as we are other areas in our life, the sex-business-silversmith business would shrivel up and die. I'd really love to see the church lead out in that during my lifetime.

Whether you're a pastor or not, I really hope you'll consider taking drastic action to keep yourself above reproach in this area. I'm hoping to give you 2 or 3 specific steps to take to protect your purity against even an accusation of impropriety. And feel free to comment - I'd love to hear about other steps you're taking to help put the sex-business-silversmiths out of business.

Family Friday

Any of you who keep up with us any way other than my blog have probably heard our news by this point. For the rest of you: Mashershalalhashbaz Freeland is due August 28th. We're pretty excited about it. My friend Erick (a pastor's son) says that pastors only have kids so they have an endless supply of sermon illustrations. He has a point.

The video below should give you all the proof you need that (1) babies 16 weeks after conception are absolutely human, and (2) that this is most certainly a little boy. Stop the video around 40 seconds if your office policy does not allow you to see videos of you-know-whats at work.


video

Straw People and Life-Givers

Monday and Tuesday I mentioned straw people - the people in life and ministry that suck everything out of you just like a straw.

What's funny is, when you read the above sentence, someones picture came to your mind. It doesn't take us very long to identify the straw people in our lives.

Straw people take on a lot of different shapes and sizes just like soft-drink straws - different amounts of suckage. But you know who they are. And if you're not careful, they will destroy your life. They'll suck the life out of you, cause you to become bitter, and cause you to slowly change into an arrogant punk who consistently avoids people who need you.

How do you deal with the straw people in your life and ministry?

Number one, I think you have to set good boundaries for them (and for yourself). You have to help them understand when some of their behaviors are inappropriate, because most of them don't realize that on their own.

For example, a couple of months ago one of my favorite straw people got a hold of my cell phone number, and began calling me 4 or 5 times a day, every day. Even better was the fact that he would call from several different phones, and I couldn't ever screen his number. Ultimately I had to have a difficult conversation with him in which I told him my cell phone number was primarily for my wife and family to use, and that he shouldn't call me on it anymore. He's getting better, but sometimes he "forgets," and I have to help him respect the boundaries by reminding him as soon as I hear his voice that "this is not an appropriate way to contact me. You need to call me at the office." Boundary conversations are some of the hardest conversations for me to have - I feel like I'm being a jerk - but if you don't have blunt, clear, loving conversations with straw people, they'll keep sucking until they suck you dry.

Second, you have to counterbalance straw people with life-givers. Just as there are people in your life who suck the life out of you, there need to be people in your life whose presence in your life gives you energy. The funny thing is, for some reason these people are more difficult to immediately identify. But you have to get some time with these people on a regular basis to pour into you what the straw people are sucking out.

If I look at my calendar for the week on Monday, and don't see any appointments with the life-giving people in my world, I schedule one. Because if I don't schedule intentional time with the life-givers, those gaps will be filled with the straw people.

I'm thankful for the several guys in my life who are consistent life-givers - I'm having lunch with one of them today. And it will be one of the more important appointments in my week this week, because I've spent a lot of other time with people who suck.

Email Time Management

Drew made a really good point in his comment on my Monday post. He asked about what you do when emails and phone calls start to pile up, and your job description calls for a lot more than just responding to email. It's a good question - and the pressure only gets stronger when people figure out you're good at responding to emails and phone calls... they tend to call and write more frequently.

Honestly, there are a ton of things in ministry I'm not very good at. I'm still on the young side, and am developing in several areas, and I've felt the tension all week in my "advice giving" to make sure I don't come across as someone who thinks they're a better pastor than they are. That's certainly not the case with me. I wake up every morning with a fairly developed sense of my weaknesses and inabilities. But, this is something important that I do feel like I'm pretty good at.

For me, it comes down to having a strategy. And because I believe the principle of returning phone calls and emails is so important, I've made sure there is time in my schedule to do it. But that time in my schedule has a beginning and end. That helps me know what pace I need to be working. Yesterday afternoon, I had more than 100 emails I needed to read and respond to, and had blocked some time between 2 and 3 to do it. I've developed a strategy for rolling through those emails that helped me get through all of them easily in an hour.

1. Delete all the messages that have "FW:" in the subject line. As funny as those things are, I just don't have time for them. If you send me a joke or a funny picture, I'm not going to read it. Sorry. I'm willing to live with the seven years of bad luck by not sending them to my friends. It can be my own personal tribulation; I'm okay with that.

2. Respond to the Newest Emails First. This seems counter intuitive, but I do it for a reason. A lot of my emails are parts of conversations in which many people are using the "reply to all" feature. So, I may get 5 emails regarding the same subject. It's a waste of my time to follow the conversation along as it goes - give me the latest information and responses, and I'll follow the rest. I don't need to think through a response someone else has already come up with.

3. Respond to the Easiest Emails First. This also sounds counter intuitive. But there are several emails that can be responded to with a quick reply. If you come to an email that can't be responded to in less than a minute, skip it and come back to it after you've tackled the easier ones. You'll find that the vast majority of your emails can be answered with a quick sentence or two. It takes me about 15 seconds to say "The 28th will be fine for me. Hope things are going well. Thanks for handling this!" So, I answer those emails first.

4. Use your remaining time to tackle the most urgent emails. This takes the bulk of my time. Here I'm chasing down thoughts, people, or information. And I try to work on the most urgent emails first, and make my way through the rest of the list. If I run out of time, and I feel like people are expecting a response, I respond with a quick email telling someone "I got your message and need some time to think about it. I'll get back with you by ______ . Thanks."

In my opinion, the thing about email that sucks the life out of people is the stupid "ding" Outlook is defaulted to doing every time you get a new message. Turn it off. You'll be a lot more efficient when you work email into your schedule rather than allowing it to force you into its schedule. Time is like money. If you don't tell it where to go, it will disappear on its own.

I find when I'm strategic with my time, I have more time than I need. When I don't have a pretty well-defined plan for how I'm going to spend my time, it seems I never have enough.

Personal Notes

Yesterday I ranted a little about how important it is to stay personally involved with people by corresponding with them and returning their phone calls yourself when at all possible. Gauging from my site hits yesterday, it seems I hit a nerve.

One caveat from yesterday before I move on - vacations and weekends are exempt from my personal 24 hour rule. The trade-off is that Monday mornings are usually spent digging out from under a pile, but it is nice to unplug for a couple of days. I'm not nearly as good at unplugging as I should be, but I'm working on it.

In addition to returning phone calls and emails personally, I've adopted one other habit that I firmly believe may be one of the best kept secrets in leadership (not just ministry... leadership). That secret is the power of a handwritten, personal note.

I learned this from my buddy Rodney Cripps, who is now a pastor at a church in North Carolina. I helped him out with a retreat one time, and two days after we returned I got the most encouraging handwritten note from him thanking me for being a part of the event. He was a busy guy, but that was a habit he kept up, and it made a huge impact on me (that retreat was almost ten years ago, and I still have the note).

Because Rodney's note made such an impact on me, I decided to adopt this thing as a habit for myself. Yeah, it takes me a couple of hours every week, and yes, I suffer from extreme writers' cramp on occasion, but it's worth it.

You want to reinforce vision and values with the people you're working with? Think of it this way: a handwritten personal note from the leader will be read nine or ten times. Do you think they read your memo on vision and values that often? Don't count on it.

For example: one of our values as a ministry is being "externally devoted" - putting our hands and feet where our mouth is. Yesterday and Sunday we had about 20 young singles spending their evenings with one of our local ministry partners. Today, I'll be sending out about 20 hand written notes telling each of those young singles "thanks" for "putting their hands and feet where their mouth is." They'll know I noticed, and I get to reinforce our values in a piece of mail they'll enjoy reading. Why would you not write personal notes to people you want to encourage?

About a year ago, Max Lucado spoke at a conference I attended. What he talked about had a profound impact on me, so I sent him a note telling him so. About a week later, I got a handwritten personal note from Max Lucado telling me "thanks" for my note. If Max Lucado has the time to write me a personal note thanking me for a thank you note, you have the time to hand write a couple of notes each week to the people you serve with.

Just like yesterday's topic, it's all about investment. Is it worth 5 minutes of your day to fire off a few sentences to someone who is serving in ministry (or the company) well? Give it a try and see how much they appreciate you appreciating them. You won't be sorry for the investment.

Are you that busy?

Here's a little glimpse into one of my personal values that is driven by a personal pet peeve: I almost always return phone calls and emails personally within 24 hours. Yes, I drop one on accident every once in a while, but the chances are good that if you email me or call me today you'll have a response by this time tomorrow.

Sounds easy, right? I'm shocked at how many of my friends in ministry are flat-out pitiful at returning phone calls and messages. I can't even talk to several of my friends any more. They're not dead, or sick, or angry with me (though they may be after this post). They've just told their secretary that they can't be bothered by people. So the admins correspond with me on their pastor's behalf now.

I understand the rationale for the "gatekeeper" philosophy for administrative assistants. Some people will take advantage of your time, call you every day, ask you meaningless questions, and take up your time. But isn't it a part of our pastoral responsibility to either (1) help those people set meaningful boundaries, or (2) pass them along to the person whose ministry is responsible for helping that person grow? If a person is calling you too much, for goodness' sake have the courage to have that conversation with them... don't make your administrative assistant do it!

A year or so ago, I helped another pastor on a fairly significant project. He's an associate pastor at a very large church (like me), and is busy doing a lot of things. Funny thing is, I never once talked to him, or even received a personal email from him. I received calls, emails, and other correspondence from his administrative assistant. That communicated something to me about how I as a person was valued in the eyes of that pastor, and I made it a commitment to never, ever be the same way.

I emailed another associate pastor of a large church about two months ago about discussing the way that church organizes their Sunday morning teaching team. His administrative assistant got back to me yesterday and gave me two slots in the next month that he is available to talk with me on the phone. Are you kidding me?

When you communicate with others only through your administrative assistant, you're making a statement to those people about how much more important your time is than theirs. You're communicating that you're way too busy doing pastor-things to be bothered with their requests. And I just can't figure out how that fits the bill of godly servant leader. Have your administrative assistant take a message if you're busy, but call the person back personally. They took the time to call you, you can take the time to talk to them.

I sure hope this doesn't come across as mean-spirited, but it's something I've really become passionate about. When you get to the point that you're too busy to be bothered by people, you're too busy. Delegate something or quit something, but please don't fall prey to the notion that you are so busy doing churchy stuff that you can't be bothered by people.

Vintage Jesus

I just finished reading "Vintage Jesus" by Mark Driscoll. To be honest, I'm not the hugest Mark Driscoll fan - I think he's probably a really good guy, but I just don't jive with his communication style. But several of our young adults are Driscoll lovers, so I wanted to stay up with what he was writing so I could stay conversant with what they're reading.

I really liked this book. It has a couple of rough spots - mostly places where there's some gratuitous off-the-wall humor that I think distracts from the point. But it's refreshing to read a guy who is thinking theologically, and communicating contemporarily (yes, I know "contemporarily" is not a word).

Vintage Jesus is a basic handbook on Christology (the study of Christ). It covers apologetics, church history, and a biblical look at who Jesus is, what He came to do, where He is now, and what confidence we have that the whole story of Jesus is truly True.

I come at the end times stuff a little differently than Driscoll. He seems to be an amillinealist (doesn't believe in a rapture, doesn't seem to believe in a literal 1000 year kingdom, etc...) but that stuff doesn't show up until the last chapter.

The best part of this book is that it deals with theological issues in contemporary language. The contemporary language may be a bit over the top for some people, and the fact that Driscoll illustrates a Christological point using "South Park" will likely get some fundamentalist shorts in a wad. But even they will find little to gripe about when it comes to the theological foundation of the book. It's pretty good stuff.

It's not cool to think theologically. It isn't inherently relational, or technological, and it certainly doesn't have the characteristics of postmodern thought. But, I think it's vital that the world of younger pastors begins to write and teach theologically so the baton continues to be handed down.

Sadly, a lot of us have sacrificed theological thinking at the altar of pragmatism, not realizing that they don't need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, theology and pragmatism are necessarily mutually inclusive. One informs the other. If pragmatism is our starting point, it will have a direct affect on our theology, and vice versa. If we don't teach our people (and our future pastors) to begin with the foundation of who God is and what God has done rather than who we are and how we should do what we want to do, what we end up doing will ultimately be foolish. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom... we have to begin there.

Welcome Strategy

We're always struggling with new ways to connect people who are guests in our ministry. We've found - big surprise - that people who make a personal connection are most likely to connect with our ministry. Our church could have the best teaching, best music, best programming, best nursery, and best youth program in the world, but people will not stick if they don't make a personal connection. So, we've test-driven several different ways to help people feel welcome, and to connect them to other people.

The most effective is one I didn't come up with, so I can brag about it. I think my predecessor came up with this idea, and I love it.

When a guest visits a young married class, they receive a handwritten note from one of the class members telling them thanks for being our guest. Then, we include a $5 gift card to Starbucks with an invitation in the hand-written note: "We'll be at Starbucks on Bryant Irvin next Saturday at 3:00pm. If you're interested in getting together or if we can answer any questions about our class, we'd love to see you there. Otherwise, enjoy a cup of coffee on the class."

Somewhere around 90 percent of the people who show up at Starbucks stick with the class. Why? Because they made a personal connection. Someone knows their name the second time they come. The class went the extra mile.

Obviously, this whole plan is contingent on having the right people in place to lead it. But it has been unbelievably effective in helping our young married class connect with each other. And all it costs us is $5.41 per couple. We think it's a good investment.

I Cannot Come Down

Andy Stanley is one of my favorite contemporary preachers. He has a little different philosophy on preaching than I, but I love to listen to his sermons. He has an ability to communicate a point about as well as anyone else I know. And I am able to remember points from his sermons for years after I hear him preach. There aren't many pastors I can say that about.

This past week, he preached on personal vision, and talked about Nehemiah 6, where Sanballat is wearing Nehemiah out trying to get him to leave construction on the wall and go to the plain of Ono so Sanballat can kill Nehemiah. But Nehemiah stuck to what God had called him to do.

You get the picture of Nehemiah standing at the top of a ladder working on the wall, when one of his messengers comes to say "Hey - Sanballat wants some time with you." But Nehemiah's reply is pretty neat: "I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down." Sanballat asked Nehemiah to reconsider several times, and Nehemiah responded the same every time.

Andy's challenge was to discern what God has called you to do, and then reply to everything else, "I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down."

So much of my day is spent doing urgent things that really aren't important. And even more of my time is wasted doing things that aren't urgent or important. And sometimes, when great opportunities come along for me to speak somewhere, or be somewhere that would take me away from what I believe God has called me to do, I need to do a better job of remembering that I am doing a great work and cannot come down.