Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Motorcycle and a Miracle...

Dad is the man lying on the ground.
     A week and one day ago, (April 10th, 2017) I got a phone call that would change me.  My parents (Dr. Randy and Mary Jane James) live in Oak Hill, West Virginia where my Dad is the Pastor of the Oak Hill Church of the Nazarene.  That afternoon, my Dad had been out calling on his motorcycle.  He was on a four lane highway headed back toward home and he was going the speed limit, which in that area was 65mph.  Suddenly a drunk driver in a pick up truck pulled out in front of my Dad and with no time to swerve or stop, Dad crashed into the side of that truck.  He hit the truck hard enough that he knocked the back wheels off of the vehicle.  When he fell to the ground we are told that his helmeted head hit the ground and bounced 2 or 3 times as it did.   He should have died.  There is literally no earthly way that my Dad should have survived such a terrible crash...but he did.  In fact, not only did he survive, but he had no broken bones, no head injuries, and no shoulder injuries.  None!
     When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to have bumps and bruises and the next day they found that he had compartment syndrome in his right leg which required two surgeries...both of which were successful and the first of which exposed a deadly blood clot that was removed without incident.
     Everyone who saw the crash or the wreckage from it expected the worst.  But, that's not what happened.  Miracles happened.  Several of them, in fact.  Within moments of the crash, a nurse (who had been coming the other direction at the time of the crash) stopped to help and was administering aid even before an ambulance could be called.  Bystanders stopped traffic to keep him from being run over since he was now in the middle of the highway.  Dad, who was awake and alert after the crash, pulled his phone from his pocket (which didn't break) and called my Mom to tell her that "he'd had an accident and thought he probably better be taken to the hospital to get checked out."   The drunk driver had just dropped off a hitch hiker who saw the entire incident and could tell the police what happened. We think that Dad's Honda Goldwing made impact with the tire area of the truck which would have had more "give" than other areas of the vehicle when struck.  But even with all those things happening...the speed Dad was going at the time of the crash should have killed him. 
     We often talk about miracles and sometimes we use the term too loosely.  But last week, no other word fits Dad's survival.  We look at this incident and we can only stand in awe and wonder.
     As a Pastor, I know that miracles happen.  I have seen them take place in the lives of people.  But this one hit me differently.  Seeing my Dad survive an unsurvivable crash makes me think that I now understand what it was like for the people who watched Jesus heal the blind or make the lame walk.  Those kinds of miracles are hard to wrap your head around because there is nothing you can even remotely attach as another reason it happened.  It's not like they could say, "Well, he wasn't really blind," or "I think the doctor gave that lame man some better medicine and it's just now taking effect."  I think I can also better understand how the disciples and the women who went to the tomb felt when they realized that Jesus was indeed alive.  Those kind of miracles just leave you staring in disbelief.  And that is the way I felt when I saw my Dad in the hospital.  I could see with my own eyes that he was alive and yet, my mind could hardly process it because I know HE SHOULD BE DEAD.  But, he's not...Dad is alive.
     We serve a God who does miracles...but now I see them in a different way.  Now, I will read those Scriptures with new eyes.  Now I think I can explain how amazing they were/are a little better.  Because now, I have seen one of those unexplainable miracles up close.  And when you see God do something that can not be explained except to acknowledge that HE did it...you walk away changed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

There will be rain...but God is bigger than the rain.

"Into each life some rain must fall."  That is from a song sung by the Inkspots in 1944, but my Mom used to say it to me when I was growing up.  It generally would be said when things were not going my way and I was being a bit of a brat about it.  But, it's a true statement.  In life, there will be times of rain.  Times when things just don't go the way you planned.  When something happens that throws you for a loop.  Leading during those times can be difficult because our focus can easily be on ourselves...and in some ways it needs to be. 

Rain can come in many forms.  It can be an unexpected big expense that you have to find a way to afford (like a car or home repair).  It can be a family crisis like an extreme illness or death.  It could even be a job change or some other life transistion.  Sometimes the rain is annoying but not overwhelming.  Sometimes it comes in huge torrents that you're not sure how you will ever get through.  The only thing we can be sure of is that in life, there will be rain.  And we still have to lead even in the midst of that rain. 

So what do we do when the rain hits?  Here are a few things I've learned from my own rainstorms:

1)  Don't forget your time with God
When the rain comes, it can be easy to get so focused on whatever the problem is that we neglect our time with the Lord.  And when the rain feels torrential, sometimes it seems like it's all we can do to get through the day...But keep your focus on the One who is bigger than the rain.  Depending on what is going on in your life, you may not be able to form the words you want to say, but that's ok.  Sometimes just being in His presence is enough.  Lean on Him.  Let His strength be your strength.  He won't let you down. 

2) Don't try to go it alone
Sometimes, in ministry, we feel like we are islands.  But we are not.  Share your burden with your spouse, or if like me, you're not married, share with a friend or family member.  Sometimes just hashing out an issue with someone you trust can change your whole perspective. You don't have to publicly share your pain on Facebook, but you should share it with a trusted confidant. 

3) It's ok for your congregation to know you are hurting
In the past 7 months, I lost both my Grandfather and Grandmother.  And it has been a process to deal with the grief of their passing.  In fact, I'm still grieving, but my church family was amazing. My Grandfather's passing was unexpected and quick and my church family hugged me and prayed for me during those shocking days.  Then five weeks later, my Grandmother's death came after watching her weaken for 10 days in the hospital.  On the day she passed, several people from my church showed up to the hospital, gathered around me and prayed.  I can't tell you how much that meant to me.  In the days and weeks that followed, they were a constant source of strength during a very trying time.  We pastors don't always share all the things going on in our lives with those in our ministry, but there are times when it is appropriate to let the congregation know our hearts are hurting.  Let them be the hands and feet of Jesus during those difficult times in your life.

4) Don't be afraid to get professional help when it's needed.
Sometimes, it takes more than advice from a friend or spouse when the rain is falling particularly hard.  In those times, don't be afraid to reach out to a Christian counselor or therapist.  As Pastors, it is not uncommon for us to refer people to get counselling during particularly difficult times in their lives and sometimes we need to take our own advice.  It is much better to reach out for help than to continually struggle without improvement. 

Rain will come, but Praise the Lord that He is with us in the midst of the rain.  And in the words of that great Gaither song, and He will sustain us "till the storm passes by."   

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Making Memorable Moments...

Every time we put together a service, we want to make what we are doing memorable for those in our congregation.  Whether it is a child, a teen, or an adult, the goal is the same.  We want the lesson we are teaching to stick with those who are hearing it.  And more than likely it won't be the whole lesson they remember, but it's very possible that one moment will stick.  So we have to make as many memorable moments in our lessons as we can.  Now, there is no sure fire way of doing that.  After all, we have all prepared lessons that we thought were going to be awesome only to see them fall flat, or taken a lesson that we were not sure would work and see people really respond to it.  So, there isn't a foolproof way to make memorable moments, but there are a few things that when incorporated generally help.  And though, we usually deal primarily with children, they can be helpful for any age group.

1) Don't just read...make the lesson fun.
I know, this seems like a no brainer, but how many times have you seen someone stand up in front of a group and then just simply read a lesson.  Or perhaps the teacher doesn't have much inflection in their voice.  These are things we have to work hard not to do.  Now, I'm not saying you can never read something.  Sometimes there might be a brief passage that you want to quote properly and so reading it is appropriate, but just standing and reading for an entire lesson simply isn't memorable.  Move, smile, change your voice, change your inflection.  The lesson should feel like you are chatting with a friend, not performing and essay. If what your teaching is fun, there is a great chance that it is also memorable.

2) Incorporate more than one of the senses. 
The more senses involved in a lesson, the better someone will remember what is being taught.  Is your Scripture focused on the woman with a jar of oil?  Perhaps you can bring in some oil and let the kids touch it.  Will you be learning about John the Baptist?  Bringing in some wild honey for the kids to taste will bring the lesson to life.  Will you be talking about faith the size of mustard seed?  You can buy small containers of mustard seeds at nearly any grocery store.  The kids will love seeing how small they really are.  Don't be afraid to use multiple senses in your lesson.  The more you use, the better they will remember what they are being taught.

3) Teach the point through many avenues
Let's say that your lesson focuses on caring for each other as Christ cares for us.  Your game could be a cooperation game where the team has to work together in order to win.  There could be an activity where the kids all have to complete a task (such as throwing a ball into a basket), but give each group a problem they have to overcome in order to complete the task (like making one of them pretend to have two broken arms, or blindfolding one).  They will have to figure out a way to help the person who has the challenge so that they all can finish the task.  You could even choose songs for the day that focus on how God cares for us such as Jonathan Shelton's "Counting on God" or Group Music's "His Great Love."  All these things together add to and build up the teaching time where you will bring out the Scripture of the day and help continually focus the listeners attention on what the lesson is...which will lead to more opportunities for memorable moments.

It takes a lot of planning an preparation to bring about memorable moments, but it's worth it.  Why?  Because God often brings those memorable moments back to our minds just when we need them most and they help us draw ever closer to Him. 

Until next week... 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A New Vision...

As you may have noticed, I have not been as regular in posting to this blog as of late.  I apologize for that, but God has been doing some incredible things in my life and I want to share with you what's been going on.

I started my 12th year as a Children's Pastor this summer. Prior to that, I was actively involved in Children's Ministry as a volunteer for about 5 years.  So for about the last 17 years I have lived and breathed ministry to children and families.  But this year God started talking to me about a different sort of ministry path and yet in some ways...it's not different at all.

He has called me to plant a church, but not just any church.  This church would be geared to reach people who have never really ever been to church before.  It would strive to remove the common barriers that tend to keep people from attending church if they have never been a part of a congregation or once they are have gotten out of the habit of attending. It would be basic in it's teaching so that the entire family could learn together and no one feels "talked down to" or out of the loop.  The environment will be fast paced, active and totally family friendly.  Everyone learns together.  The family unit is taught as a whole in one place in ways that everyone understands.  We will sit at tables and chairs and the tables will be covered with butcher paper and manipulatives, allowing for activity even during times of listening.  The service would be multi-sensory so no one type of learning is excluded or, for that matter, exclusively used. It's a whole new way of doing ministry and I am beyond excited about it.

God called and I listened, but I will admit that I was terrified at first.  I mean, I never expected to be a senior pastor...ever.  But when God speaks we have to listen so I started out on this journey.  I started praying...I started talking about what God was impressing on me with friends who immediately jumped on board and started encouraging me.  Then, I started talking to my District Superintendent about this a few months back and he also could see the vision I was sharing and encouraged me.  Every door that I expected to close in my face has opened wide as I have continued to walk down this path.  Last week, our District Advisory Board approved the plans for this church plant.  Yesterday, I got an email from my General Church telling me that the plant was officially registered with the denomination.

So, I am excited to share with you all that I am now the Pastor of the New Vision Church of the Nazarene in LaGrange, IN.  We will have our Open House/Launch Party on December 17th and then on January 8th, 2017 we will hold our first service.  If you'd like to check out New Vision, please see our Facebook page.

This journey has been more amazing than I could ever put into words.  I have never in my life had such an experience.  I know the days ahead will be challenging, but I also know that God is going to do some incredible things and I'm thrilled to have even a small part of His plans.

Next week, I'll go back to my regular "Tuesday's Tips", but this week, I just had to share what God has been doing.

Until next time...

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Transitions and Saying Goodbye...

Change happens in ministry...and sometimes the change is you.  Part of being a pastor means changing churches when the Lord leads you to do so.  However, leaving the children and families that you have gotten so close to can be very difficult.  Personally, I am in the midst of such a change as I leave my current congregation to become a church plant pastor. (More about that another time)  But this is not the first time I've changed churches and though each time the situation is somewhat different, there are a few things you can do to make the move as easy as possible for all those involved.

First, plan for the day when you will resign to your children.  For me, because I am teaching children's church during the adult worship service, the senior pastor will generally read my resignation to the adults, but I tell the children myself.  I feel it is important that they hear the news from me.  So, I prepare a lesson all about following the Lord's lead in our lives wherever that path might go.  When the children understand how important it is to follow the Lord's leading, it makes it easier for them to understand why you are leaving.  That is not to say that it makes them miss you any less (or you them), but they do understand.  It's important that they realize that you are not just "leaving them", because some children will feel like they did something that made you leave or that you didn't like them enough to stay.  But when they realize that you are simply going where the Lord is sending you, that is a very different thing.

Second, sometimes when we leave, there are reasons that we can not discuss with the church body.  There will always be people who will wonder why you are leaving and if something or someone influenced your decision.  And at times, that might be the case but, and this is really important, even if you have a reason to make waves about why you are leaving...don't.  This is not easy if you feel like you have been wronged in some way.   In fact it might be the hardest thing you ever have to do in ministry, but it is the better path.  Making someone else look bad is only going to make you look worse...even if you are in the right.   Leave a legacy of love and understanding.  Not one of hurt feelings and pain.  Our job is to always leave the church better than when we arrived.

Thirdly, prepare for your successor.  Are there quirks about your area that a new person should know? Are there some helpful hints or lists of workers you can leave for the next person who has your position?  If so, it might be a good idea to leave them a note.  At one church where I served, the children's area had 4 thermostats of which only two worked and a huge set of closets full of supplies that I didn't realize had been there when I first arrived at the position.  So I made sure I left that information in my note.  Printing off lists of volunteers and any schedules you have available can also be a huge blessing to the next leader.  Leaving behind a list of events is helpful as well.  When I was the newbie at one of the churches I served, there was a huge event that I didn't realize I was supposed to have a children's program during until about two weeks before the event.  Because it was an event that had happened for so many years, people didn't realize that I wasn't in the loop for the details.  So, when I left, I made sure I left behind a list of all the main church events and what the children's department was responsible for at each of those events for the person who followed me.

Lastly...once someone else has your position, don't visit much for a while.  I'm not saying don't visit at all, but if it is in your means to wait until the new person has been there about 6 months or so, that will help the children attach to that new leader much easier.  If you keep showing up, the children will automatically look to you and not to the new leader and that is not fair to the children or your successor.  If you do decide to pop in for a visit, don't go back to the children's area until after church.  If you go there before service starts, it can be difficult for the leader to get the children's attention again and can disrupt the service flow.  After service, is a much better time to connect with everyone.

These are a few things that I've learned over the years.  Transitioning can be a challenge, but when God calls us to a new position, He will also lead us through the transition. 

Until next week!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Following His Path...

Some days ministry is awesome.  You know what I'm talking about.  When you lead a service where God moves in and takes over, where lives are changed, where people really connect with the Savior.  Those are the days that we live for and strive to repeat because leading others to the throne of grace is why we are in ministry to begin with.  We want to help others come to know the King of Kings and strive to teach them what having a relationship with Him looks like.

Then there are the harder days.  The days where nothing seems to go as planned.  Where your teachers show up late or not at all, where the coffee maker busted, where the copier is out of toner and you just need two more copies, or when someone is upset with you because of something they heard from someone else about something you didn't have anything to do with. Yeah, those are fun days. (She said sarcastically.) 

But I think the hardest part of ministry, and the Christian life in general, is when God comes in and asks you to move out of your comfort zone.  When He gives you a vision that includes things you never thought you would see yourself doing in ways you never dreamed. No one likes to be blindly led, but in Scripture, God often asks His leaders to be willing to do just that.  Abraham was asked to go without knowing where he was going to end up (Genesis 12:1), so he left and God provided for him.  Gideon was asked to fight a battle with so few men he could not see how victory could be possible (Judges 7), but he obeyed and God provided the victory that was needed. When Jesus called His disciples, they really didn't have any idea how their lives would change, but they followed him and they were witness to amazing things and had the opportunity to learn at the feet of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have multiple accounts of them).  All of these people in Scripture, and many more as well, were asked to just follow where God was leading them without knowing what exactly that road would look like.  And when they obeyed, God used them in mighty ways.

When God asks us to step out in faith and do something we never thought we could do, those times are scary and can be overwhelming.  But then you remember that, He wouldn't ask you to step out in faith if He had any doubt you could do it.  He wouldn't choose you if you were not the right person for the job.  And though, you may not be able to see the road, the way is clearly marked from God's point of view.  The hard part is trusting Him to lead us.  Then again...if we really trust Him like we say we do, maybe it isn't all that hard after all.

In your ministry, you will have times where God calls you out of your comfort zone to places you never expected.  Keep following.  Though, it might seem like a wilderness to you, the road is clearly marked to God and He won't let you get lost so long as you follow His lead. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Vacation Bible School Alternatives

Vacation Bible School is, for most churches, a big part of their planning for the year.  If you are planning a Vacation Bible School and you want it to be successful, you have to work on it months in advance.  It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to buy the curriculum, get the volunteers, prepare the decorations, find the crafts, get the proper snacks and so much more.  However, if VBS is traditionally well attended in your area and it opens doors for outreach for your church, then it is time, money and effort well spent. If it is working at your church, keep it up.  It can be an amazing tool to reach children and shouldn't be set aside if it is still connecting with the families in your area.

But what if it no longer seems to work at your church?  What if it is like pulling teeth to get the volunteers, your budget is stretched thin, and the kids just don't seem interested?  Don't beat yourself up.  You are not alone.  In fact, I have Children's Pastor friends all over the country and lots of us are beginning to face this issue.  The numbers of attendees are down.  The folks in the church simply can't help like they did in the past.  And now, with so many schools going to a balanced calendar, the window of opportunity is very small to even hold a Bible School in the summer.

So, what can be done?  In my opinion, we have to get out of the traditional five day VBS mindset and start focusing on what might work for our area.  There are lots of alternatives if you are willing to make a few changes.

Use an existing service time
If you want to do a program in the summer, but you don't have a full week available, perhaps you could hold your VBS on Sunday Mornings, Sunday Nights, or Wednesday Nights.  This doesn't work everywhere, but in some places, simply replacing an existing children's service with special Vacation Bible School Services is a fun way to change things up in the summer.  
Pick a different time of year
In my area, because of the balanced school calendar, summer is about 8 weeks long.  Four of those weeks are taken up with our District Family Camp, two Teen Camps, and three Children's Camps.  One week on either end of the vacation is difficult to plan around because not all the schools begin or end on the same day. That leaves two weeks in the summer and often those weeks are difficult to plan big events around because of all the family vacations that people take.  So, why not plan your big event at a different time of year?  If you want to do a Vacation Bible School (either three day or five day), why not plan it during part of one of the other longer school breaks.  For example, many families in our area travel during part of the Spring Break, but not so much during the Fall Break. And our Fall Break is two weeks long, so there are about 5-7 days that all the schools are out at the same time.  For us, it could be a much better time to plan an outreach event. 

Try a Sport Camp VBS
I am about as uncoordinated and athletically challenged as they come, but even I was able to pull off leading a Mega Sports Camp.  It's totally different from your traditional Bible School in many ways, but there are some great Biblical lessons and in this program that the kids will love.  If you want to do Bible School, but want to put a different spin on it, I highly recommend this one.  
Do something different
If your town is full of churches, like mine is, there are probably 20 different Bible Schools going on during the summer.  So why not plan something totally different?  Perhaps a Family Concert or Bazaar.  Maybe a Friday night/Saturday family camp out at a nearby lake or park would be well received.  You could have a special family service right around the campfire.  Look at your area and see what the families enjoy.  It will be different everywhere, but if you can plan something really fun, but different than what everyone else is doing, you will automatically stand out.    

Don't overload your volunteers
Your volunteers want to help.  After all, that is why they volunteer, but be careful that you are not overloading them.  If you are seeing that your team is getting pretty tired and are in need of a break, that is NOT the time to add something new to their plate.  Part of our jobs as ministers is to take care of those who are working along side us.  I read a great book not long ago by Barry Newton called "A Mile In These Shoes."  I highly recommend it and there was a quote in it about how we work with others that hit me hard.  He said, "If we are reaching the lost at the expense of those we already have, we are not saving the world.  We are simply leaving a trail of burnt, broken people in our wake." (pg. 104) Programs and events are great, but if our schedule is so full that we are burning out our volunteers to present them, then the price is just too high.  It might be that, for one summer, you don't do a big event so that they can rest and come back refreshed and renewed.  

Don't be afraid to fail
Now, don't get me wrong, I don't want you to try something that you know will fail.  But don't let the fear of failure prevent you from trying something new.  If it doesn't work, you can still learn from the experience.  If it does work, you may have just started something that will reach lots of new families in your community for the Lord.  

Times continue to change and we have to change with them.  But don't be afraid, change can be good...and the right change can revitalize your ministry.  

Until next week...