Skills in Ministry

What does it take to be an effective minister of the gospel? That was the question that launched Rockbridge Seminary. When we began this new approach to seminary education, we worked with hundreds of pastors to identified 35 competencies for effective ministry. Those competencies were organized by purpose: fellowship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism, and worship. Out of our study, we developed an instrument to help Christian leaders assess their ministry skills. To date, over 3000 leaders have taken the survey. The scale is a 4-point scale and is scored as follows: Beginning-1, Developing-2, Strong-3, Well-Developed-4. The top five skills identified by full-time pastors are:

Top Five Ministry Skills Identified by Pastors

MS #

Ministry Skill

Average Score

Ranking

F-4 Works effectively with others.

3.38

1

E-6 Respects persons of different cultural, social, and religious backgrounds.

3.28

2

F-2 Sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

3.27

3

F-5 Listens and responds in ways that let people know they have been heard.

3.25

4

F-1 Builds and maintains healthy relationships with others.  3.25

5

 

These findings bear out that effective ministers have effective relationships with others. In ministry as in life, relationship skills trump all other skills. Coming in number 7 in ranking was “Demonstrates godly humility and sacrificial love for those in the church.” Our churches are better when we have leaders who are servants.

Other interesting findings are what pastors scored themselves low in. Here are the bottom five ministry skills identified by full-time pastors.

Bottom Five Ministry Skills Identified by Pastors

MS #                                     Ministry Skill

Average Score

Ranking

E-3 Leads the church in planning and conducting cross-cultural missions.

2.27

35

E-2 Leads the church in an effective program of evangelism.

2.36

34

F-6 Develops small groups and leads them to birth new groups.

2.45

33

F-7 Leads the church in developing a process for connecting new members into the life and purposes of the church.

2.51

32

D-4 Leads the church in planning, conducting, and evaluating a comprehensive program of discipleship and Christian maturity.

2.52

31

 

 

We believe there is a correlation between these scores and the failing discipleship in our churches. An informal poll conducted by the author at a pastor’s conference discovered that 95% of pastors were not part of a small group experience, either as a leader or participant. Recently a pastor told me that the pandemic revealed the Church’s deficient in discipleship. He said, “We’ve placed too much emphasis, time, and resources on a one-hour weekend event, rather than discipling our members who can disciple others.” The ministry skills assessment affirms that diagnosis.

Students at Rockbridge also complete the assessment in their first and last course. In addition to their self-inventory, a 360-degree assessment is collected from their mentors, peers, and people they serve. As would be expected, students enter Rockbridge with lower scores than the scores of full-time pastors. Upon graduation, Rockbridge students in the 2016 cohort scored higher in 34 of the 35 competencies than when they began their studies. What was more surprising is that upon completing their studies at Rockbridge, students scored higher than the full-time pastors in 32 of the 35 competencies. If you would like to see a chart of these findings, please go to this link.

If you would like to take the assessment click on this link.

Graduation 2020 Ceremony

You may watch the Rockbridge Seminary 2020 Commencement program by clicking on this link.

 

 

The Meaning of Commencement

Commencement comes from a Latin word that means inception or beginning. The name refers to the ceremony of initiation for new scholars into the fellowship of university teachers in medieval Europe. The event marked their entrance into full-fledged academic lives. In other words, those who had been taught were expected now to teach others what they had learned. The same expectation exists today at our school. Rockbridge Seminary disciples leaders who disciple the world.

For graduates of Rockbridge, ministry life doesn’t begin after graduation. These graduates are already proven leaders who have served Christ and his Church for years. The average age of our graduates is 46, but people in their 70s have completed a degree at Rockbridge. Most of our students do not come to Rockbridge to put another piece of paper on their wall, or with hope of finding a more lucrative ministry position. They come because they are questers, seekers of truth, explorers of the sacred.

Many years ago, I was told that the pouch formed in the tail of the doctoral hood was used like a collection plate. Students would pay tribute to their professors by dropping money in the pouch. That makes for a great story, but it never happened to me. Students have enriched my life in so many other ways. Over the years, I have received notes expressing thanks for something I said or did. Most of the time I am sure I didn’t make the brilliant statement ascribed to me, but I am glad that I was part of that student’s life. That is reward enough.

Students continue to inspire me with their resilience and persistence in completing their studies. You will hear some of their stories in this year’s commencement address. Students humble me by their commitment to Christ. They astound me by their creativity in ministering to the needs of others. Their questions have kept me learning. I have gained far more than I have given.

The July 2020 Rockbridge commencement is the last one I will preside over. Interestingly, because of coronavirus, this graduation’s commencement address was recorded in my home office: a fitting end to my journey of online seminary education. Over the past 36 years I have participated in approximately 50 commencement ceremonies. I have witnessed thousands of students walking across the stage, fulfilling their goal of becoming more effective ministry leaders. My mind is filled with memories of families celebrating the accomplishments of their graduates, congratulatory words expressed and family members saying, “I am proud of you.” Hugs and kisses. Pats on the back. Moms, dads, spouses, and other family members bursting with pride. Photos taken to record this important slice of history. Children looking uncomfortable in their celebratory clothes but sensing that this event is a big deal. Smiles and tears of joy. It is a poignant reminder of why we do what we do.

I will miss being physically together this year to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates. I am looking forward to the day when all of us will celebrate what God accomplished in our lives. To Him be the glory. Until then, I will remember the rich encounters I’ve had with fellow learners and smile with joy.

Commencement Premier, July 13, 8:00 p.m. Central

We invite you to join us for our digital graduation commencement which premiers on July 13, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. Central (Chicago).  To view the event beginning July 13, go to the following link.  Please bookmark the link so that you can quickly and easily return to it.  Share the link with family and friends.  After the ceremony, you will be able to download the video and share it with others. A commencement booklet is now available on the above link.

 

Juneteenth

I live in Galveston, Texas, where Juneteenth, the celebration of the emancipation of slaves, originated.  It was on June 19th, 1865, that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed on our island with the news that the war had ended and slaves were now free.  This news was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and months after the South surrendered.  General Granger read this proclamation:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.

This week, thanks to recommendations from friends, I read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo, and Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, by David Livingstone Smith.  I also read the history of a large, famous seminary in the South that was founded by slave owners.  The biblical scholars and pastors who founded the seminary defended slavery in their teaching and writing, fought for the South in the civil war, promoted segregation, and opposed civil rights.   As I ponder the ideas I’ve read, here are a few of my personal reflections and feelings this week:

I don’t know what I don’t know. I was aware of some of the issues facing people of color, but I am still ignorant on the systemic nature of racism. I haven’t thought deeply about how I am part of a system that created the mess we’re in.  I am a beneficiary of the system.  I don’t write this as an excuse, but as an acknowledgement of how much I need to learn.  Like with many things in life, the only way for me to know what I don’t know is to invite truth tellers into my life.  To allow truth tellers into my life requires trust.  Trust requires relationships.  Others will not share their thoughts and feelings with me if they don’t trust me or I don’t trust them.  Trust takes time and presence.  It requires humility.  It also requires me to listen and not become defensive when others speak truth.  I’m not very good at hearing what I don’t want to hear about myself or about my tribe.  I’m learning.

The problem is so big, what can I do? I found myself looking at the racism  in our country and feeling overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted.  I can’t change the past.  I don’t have much runway left.  What can I do?  Moving forward, I will be intentional about how I invest my time, my money, and my relationships in efforts to abolish the inequities and injustices created by the dualistic supremacist ideology in our society.  So, if you have ideas on where to begin, drop me a note.

What questions are we not asking? Some of my readings this week included the writings of pastors and theologians who taught that White supremacy was God-ordained.  This was not a new revelation to me.  I knew the history, even of the denomination I served.  I congratulated myself that I had put that wrong theology and those who perpetuated these evils in my rear-view mirror.

My readings this week reminded me of the important role that theological education plays in our culture.  What we teach matters.  Seminary professors in the South taught that Blacks were inferior, to be treated as a commodity like cattle; they were less than human.  This view was not limited to the 1800s.  As a young man, I heard pastors teach that White supremacy was the result of the curse of Ham upon his son Canaan.  This story was used to justify the subjugation of the Canaanite people by the Israelites.  Several thousand years later, this same story was used to justify the subjugation of Blacks by Whites—all in the name of God’s will.  This theology was incongruent with my experience on an integrated college basketball team, where players were not judged by their skin color, but by their character and contributions to our team.  It was also incompatible with my view of a loving God.

The Bible has been wrongly used to oppress others and keep the status quo.  If we want to see a systemic change in our country the Church must critically ask, “How has our theology shaped and undergirded domination and supremacy?  How did the good news of Jesus become only for the chosen, the select few, the favored?  How are the Church’s teachings continuing to contribute to the sins of dominance and racism?

From its inception, Rockbridge has been committed to providing a diverse learning community, not just of skin color, gender, and denominations, but also of thought and practice.  We have persons of color on our board and faculty.  We can do better.  To that continued end, we are asking hard questions about the role we can play in seeing racial equality become a reality in our churches and society.  How do we help students think theologically about the issues of our day?  In the coming months, we will examine how we can revise our curriculum and add persons of color in leadership roles.  We call on our students and alumni to help us shape the future.

Let’s commemorate Juneteenth by working for racial equality.  As 1 Corinthians 12 teaches, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Until all of us are free, none of us are free.  We are in this together.

Rockbridge Commencement – July 13

We invite you to join us for our virtual graduation commencement which premiers on July 13, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. Central (Chicago).  To view the event beginning July 13, go to the following link.  Please bookmark the link so that you can quickly and easily return to it.  Share the link with family and friends.  After the ceremony, you will be able to download the video and share it with others. A commencement booklet will also be available before the commencement begins.

Passing the Baton

Dear Members of the Rockbridge Seminary Community,

Over a year ago, I announced my plans to retire as president at the end of 2020. The board of trustees and I have been working on a succession plan to select the next president. It has been an awesome privilege and honor to serve as one of the founders of Rockbridge Seminary. As I close out eighteen years, I am grateful for the opportunity the board of trustees gave me to be part of creating a new way of developing leaders for Christian ministry.

On behalf of the board of trustees and presidential search committee, I am pleased to announce that Rev. Tommy Hilliker has accepted the role of president of Rockbridge Seminary. He will assume his duties as president on August 1, 2020. Over the coming months, I will assist with the transition and spearhead our reaccreditation efforts.

Following an extensive national search, our board unanimously selected Rev. Hilliker from a diverse and qualified group of candidates. Hilliker comes to Rockbridge from Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California, where he served as the advancement campaign manager. Hilliker helped to oversee the strategy, development, and implementation of a $25 million capital and endowment giving campaign. Additionally, Hilliker taught classes on collegiate success and spiritual formation as an adjunct professor.

Rev. Hilliker has always had a heart for the ministry of pastors in the local church. He began his career in admissions and career counseling at Southern Seminary, helping students explore ministry career pathways. Hilliker moved from there to a role as creative marketing director for the pastoral resource website, Pastors.com. He then served for fourteen years at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, first as the pastor of membership, and then as the global pastor of ministries. He also served as a Saddleback elder. He has a commitment to the Purpose Driven Church principles upon which Rockbridge was founded.

As Saddleback’s global pastor of ministries, Hilliker was responsible for leading strategic initiatives for the main and multisite campuses. He oversaw the mobilization of volunteers and development of ministries, local missions, pastoral care, the PEACE Center (Community Resource Center), and the church-wide discipleship process known as CLASS. During his time of leadership in Saddleback’s membership care, growth, retention, and assimilation efforts, church membership grew by over 11,000 in four years.

Having served as a leader in pastoral care, Rev. Hilliker is passionate about the well-being of ministers. He wants Rockbridge to be known as a seminary that cares about every aspect of the ministry leader’s life and provides true soul care for students and their families. Hilliker is committed to continuing the development and practice of spiritual disciplines in every course, so that graduates will know God intimately. When asked about his new role at Rockbridge, Hilliker said:

“I see the critical importance of continuing to advance how we prepare pastors and ministry leaders. I want us to continue to cultivate an environment of innovation in digital learning. Rockbridge must stay current with best practices and excellence in academics, and always look for better ways to equip men and women for Christian ministry. We want to be widely known as a seminary where everyone will receive high-quality biblical training that is affordable, accessible, and practical. Today more than ever, our world needs deeply formed disciples, partnering with God, to advance His Kingdom.”

Rev. Hilliker has a Master of Divinity from Gateway Seminary and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Marriage, and Family from Liberty University. He was ordained to the ministry at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida.

The board of trustees and I enthusiastically welcome Tommy Hilliker, his wife, Amy, and their children Kaylie, Cassidy, and Caleb to Rockbridge Seminary. We strongly believe that Hilliker’s character, decisive leadership, and collaborative spirit will position our seminary for excellence and growth in the years ahead.

I eagerly anticipate hearing stories in the years ahead of how God is using Rock’rs to transform the lives of people around the world.

The Power of Ministry Coaches

One group of servant leaders who invest in the lives of our students are local mentors.  Rockbridge students are required to enlist local ministry coaches for every course.  Our students serve in a wide variety of settings, including small rural churches, ministry organizations, large urban churches, and in other countries and language groups.  The coaches help students apply their learning to the local ministry context.  Over 250 mentors have volunteered their time and resources to assist our students.  We could not accomplish our mission without their invaluable help.

We believe that regardless of where you are in your journey, all of us need cheerleaders and coaches.  Our mentor process is effective, in part, because students personally enlist their ministry coaches rather than Rockbridge assigning them mentors.  It is important for students to be able to relate personally to their coaches.  Students choose mentors who are effective in the ministry skills they need to develop.  Students may use multiple mentors throughout their program.

We’re fortunate to have the best of the best investing in our students.  We ask students to meet weekly with their mentors.  These mentors are busy, and yet they give sacrificially to serve our students.  Because of the bond students form with their mentors, it is no surprise that students tell us their experiences with mentors are an important influence on their educational experience at Rockbridge.

Seventy-three percent of students identify their mentor experience as important or very important to their growth as a leader.  Students tell us that their relationship with their mentors helps them in many ways, with these three benefits listed at the top: (1) gaining a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses; (2) improving their pastoral skills, and (3) achieving greater self-understanding.

While the mentors provide encouragement and guidance to the students, they report that they also gain from the experience, as seen in this sampling of comments from mentors about their students:

“[This student] has tremendous self-awareness of who she is, her gifts, her weaknesses, her skills and abilities–-probably more than anyone I have met at her age!  She is passionate about making a difference.”

“[This student] prepared and delivered his first public sermon.  He also was able to get critical feedback from peers.  Go God!

“[This mentoring experience] enlightened me regarding the historical and biblical perspectives of worship.  It also provided me with information regarding the diversity of worship in different congregations.  I enjoyed the experience and am blessed to be able to serve as a mentor.”

Students begin their journey at Rockbridge by taking a Ministry Skills Assessment inventory (MSA).  This tool appraises their skills in worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism.  At the end of their program, students, mentors, and coworkers of students evaluate the students in those same skills.  The average student begins the Rockbridge journey with a composite score on the skills assessment of 2.58 on a 4.0 scale.  At the end of the program, the average student’s self-scores increase to 2.96.  However, on the mentors’ evaluations of the 2019 cohort, students’ ministry skills scores averaged 3.58 on a 4.0 scale.  This means students went from the beginning and developing stages in their skills to being strong and well-developed ministers.

Mentors not only impact the lives of their mentees, but through the mentees’ disciples impact the lives of thousands.  That is the power of ministry coaches.

It’s Friday, but . . .

This Sunday will be the most unusual Easter we have experienced in our lifetime. We will not dress up in our spring outfits or gather with others at a church building.  We will not be together with family to enjoy an Easter egg hunt with the kids or eat a lavish meal.  We will not sing songs of the resurrection in the physical presence of others.  Restaurants, parks, and beaches will be closed.  Many of the elderly and singles will find themselves isolated and alone.  Easter as we have known it will be different this year.

As churches worldwide broadcast Easter services, ten thousand of our fellow humans will die from COVID-19.  One hundred thousand new cases of coronavirus will manifest across the globe.  Several million more people will lose their jobs and wonder how they are going to pay the bills.

Anxiety and fear are rampant.  Medical systems are stretched to the max.  Medical personnel are exhausted from long days and limited breaks.  Health care workers fear for their own lives and the safety of family members.  Medical supplies and equipment are in short supply.  Doctors and nurses grieve that despite their best efforts only 20% of their patients on respirators will live.

Some pastors are prophesying that this is the end of times; the apocalypse is here. This is God’s punishment for our sin.  The world is full of darkness.

This must have been how the disciples felt on the first Good Friday.  From their perspective, there was nothing good about that day.  Their teacher and friend hung on a cross.  They watched the Messiah writhe in pain as he suffered a torturous death.  Those first followers feared for their lives.  Some gave in to despair and others went into hiding.

Some years ago, Tony Campolo preached a sermon entitled “It’s Friday but Sunday’s Comin’!”  I encourage you to watch it.  Campolo reminded us that when everything feels dark and hopeless, resurrection is on its way.  Friday is a good metaphor for what we are experiencing right now.  This, however, is not the end of our story.

Years from now, we will look back on this unique Easter weekend and share stories of resurrection.  We will discuss breakthroughs in medicine.  We will marvel at the innovations in business, churches, and government.  We will recall fond memories of how the virus brought families and friends closer together.  We will rejoice for the lives that were changed because of newfound faith.  While there is sadness now, our sorrow will turn into joy.  This is the message of Easter.

Yes, it’s Friday . . . but Sunday’s comin’!

Coronavirus: What the Church Can Learn from the Black Death Pandemic

In the mid-1300s there was a pandemic so virulent that it killed 75-200 million people in Asia and Europe. Called the Black Death, an estimated 40-50% of Europe’s population died from it during a four-year period. In certain countries the death toll was closer to 75-80% of the population. It took centuries for the population in some countries to return to pre-plague numbers

Not only was the disease itself lethal, but the discipline of science had not yet been developed to guide leadership decisions. Priests were the most educated leaders in the community, and people turned to them for advice on everything, not just on spiritual matters. People believed ministers were God’s spokespersons for truth, both sacred and material, so they relied on the priests for guidance about the terrible disease running rampant around the world.

Priests cared for the sick, administered last rites, and did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time. Some priests fled their posts, but many continued ministering, baptizing, marrying, burying, and attending to the sick and dying. An estimated 40% of priests died from the Black Death. Their dedication serves as an example for ministers today.

However, because people relied so heavily on the priests to be their authority for all truth, the Church lost its influence when priests did not have answers for the pandemic crisis. The priests failed to offer meaningful help for the world’s suffering. Nothing they said or did made any significant difference, and sometimes their words and actions were harmful. Simply put, the priests did not know what to do.

There is nothing to be gained from second-guessing the actions of ministers and the Church during the Black Death. If I had lived during that time, more than likely I would have responded the same way, and I am not passing judgment. But we can learn from that time in history and apply those principles today. Here are my gleanings.

  1. Ministers are not superhuman and being a Christian doesn’t protect you from illness. Before and during the Black Death, the vast majority of Christians believed that if you followed the teachings of the Church, God would protect you. Devotion to the institutional church was thought to confer immunity from sickness. Further, priests acquired a touch of the superhuman when they were ordained, and parishioners believed priests had a special link with God. During the plague, the laity discovered that ministers were just as vulnerable to the disease as they were. Because priests didn’t practice social distancing as they visited the sick and administered the sacraments, they were highly susceptible to the disease and passed on the illness to others. When the prayers of religious leaders were unable to save people from the onslaught of the disease, they didn’t leave God, but they no longer turned to the institutional church for answers. They were spiritual, but not religious.

As they did during the time of the Black Death, many people today look to ministers for help. They trust them to speak truth. Yet when ministers speak of things outside their sphere of knowledge, they can damage their ministry and the name of Christ, as well as potentially cause harm to their followers. In our current crisis, stories are emerging of pastors who denied the seriousness of the coronavirus and called it a political ploy. Some pastors proclaimed that God would honor the faithful who attended church services, even after government officials warned of the danger and barred groups from gathering. Unfortunately, not only did those pastors put their flocks in danger, some of the pastors themselves fell victim. The underlying cause of this denial is mistrust. Some ministers mistrust anyone, even a verified expert, who has a different opinion from theirs. The Bible’s term for this is pride and arrogance. We need humility from our spiritual leaders.

  1. Don’t play the blame game. Europeans blamed Jews for the Black Death. Rumors circulated that Jews poisoned the water wells. Today, some people blame China for the coronavirus. Asians have been attacked and shunned. Others blame the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, and government leaders. It is a human trait to blame others for the wrongs in the world. Dualism is our mode of operation: us against them. Christ, however, called us to oneness with God and others.

Pope Clement VI, the pope at the time of the plague, condemned people who blamed the Jews for the suffering. He wrote, “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.” There will be plenty of time after the coronavirus pandemic to examine our preparations and decisions. Let’s extend grace and mercy and work with others to solve the problem.

  1. Address theological questions without resorting to simplistic answers.

One erroneous message we hear is that this catastrophic event is God’s punishment for our sin. This message was also rampant during the Black Death, and 1300 years earlier, Jesus addressed that misconception as well (John 9:2). We hear this every time there is a hurricane, wildfire, or epidemic disease. But pandemics affect everyone–godly people suffer and die right along with those we might consider unrighteous. Innocent children die. Does God punish his good children because of the bad behavior of sisters and brothers? If parents do this, we call it abuse.

People are asking deep existential questions. Why is there pain and suffering? Why do good people die? Why is this happening? What is the purpose of life in general, and of my life specifically? One of the answers I hear often from my Christian friends is “God is in control.” While you and I agree with that assertion, this answer isn’t satisfactory to those who have sick or dying loved ones. It doesn’t alleviate the fear of people who are anxious about their next paycheck and their job security. Those struggling with their faith ask, “If God is in control why doesn’t he end this suffering? Would a loving God allow this?” Those questions demand more than simplistic answers.

During a crisis, Christian leaders need, as Henri Nouwen wrote, “the discipline of strenuous theological reflection [which] will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.” We need to think with the mind of Christ and connect with the Spirit of God. We need to humbly acknowledge that our opinions are not infallible. We need to think deeply about how our teaching honors God’s character.

  1. Don’t use fear to further the cause of Christ and the Church.

Fear was rampant during the Black Death. People feared the transition from the world of the living to the afterlife. Confession, last rites, and funeral services were important to mental and psychological health. Religious rituals helped restore mental and social equilibria.

A theological theme heard in the Black Death and in our pandemic today is “Don’t fear, have faith.” This message is on target. Of all people, those who are connected with God should turn from fear to faith. We should always extend the invitation to follow Jesus. But some leaders have used fear of the disease to manipulate others to ask Jesus into their heart. Decisions made through manipulation usually don’t last long. Manipulation is never love.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we can teach people how to reject the false narratives of fear and anxiety and how to connect with the Creator of the universe. Instead of emphasizing the correct beliefs about faith and crises, we can demonstrate how to experience God’s presence. We can teach people HOW to pray. Contemplative prayer is the most significant thing the Church should be doing right now.

  1. Don’t use the circumstance to ask for money just for your church.

During the Black Death, priests charged extra for their ministry. Call it hazard pay. Church leaders became rich by serving private family chapels where wealthy patrons paid great amounts for private masses. New stress was put on indulgences: “Pay us and you will escape eternal damnation.” As a result, the Church became wealthy on the backs of the suffering. One of the motivations for the Reformation and the emergence of the Protestant Church was the sale of indulgences. Priests became greedy. Laymen expected priests to be selfless and benevolent, exemplars of the Christian life. Greedy, immoral, and self-indulgent Christian leaders led people to lose trust in the institutional church.

While a few Christian leaders might use the crisis to their financial advantage, the overwhelming majority of today’s churches will not gouge their parishioners for money. Unlike some priests during the Black Death, ministers are not going to become rich because of the coronavirus. However, if church leaders want to be an influence in their community, they need to be careful about how they address financial needs.

Churches today, just like businesses, will suffer financially in the current pandemic. But rather than calling on laymen to keep the church afloat, churches could revamp their budget and ask people to contribute to help people in the community, providing direction on how they can help. Much of our time and money is spent on weekend services. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide online worship services–we need inspiration during this time. But many people are not going to give to simply keep a church solvent. Community members, even those who are not members of your congregation, will give to alleviate the suffering in their community.

  1. Prepare to train pastors and support small churches.

Many churches during and after the Black Plague closed their doors and never reopened. This was particularly prevalent in small towns. The reasons for church closings were a shortage of trained ministers and the economic downturn that accompanied the Black Death. The hardest hit churches were those in rural areas composed of the working class.

Rural churches in America are already struggling to find competent, educated pastors to shepherd churches. Many small churches are already on the financial bubble, with little to no margin to operate. Denominational leaders predict language churches, those whose primary language is not English, will be the first to close their doors. Small churches composed of members with lower socioeconomic status will be the hardest hit.

Denominations, church networks, larger churches, and seminaries can begin now to address this growing need. Large urban churches should consider partnering with churches in rural areas. More bivocational pastors will be needed. Retired ministers could be redeployed for service in small towns. The Church needs to hear sermons that call people to the pastorate. Churches can assist in the training of ministers by financially supporting their members to attend seminaries.

  1. Think outside the box on how to help the suffering.

Because so many priests died from the Black Death, there were not enough priests to hear confessions and administer the sacraments. Pope Clement VI went against tradition and granted remission of sins to all who had died from the Black Death. He also went against social practice and allowed members to confess their sins to male laity and, in the absence of a man, to a woman. In doing this he gave comfort to the dying and their families.

I am impressed with the creative ways churches are responding to the needs of the people in their community during the current pandemic. Churches are providing virtual marital counseling, care response teams, food distribution, medication delivery, and help for the elderly. Small groups are using Zoom to study the Bible and pray for others. Churches are contacting every member by personal texting and phone. This is God visible.

Conclusion

Due to some priests’ actions during the Black Death, the Church lost influence. For many people, their view of the world changed dramatically, and they never returned to the Church. Today, the Church has an opportunity to bring help and hope to the world. Let’s learn from the past and embrace Ephesians 5:16 to “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.”

An abundance of . . .

Churches are being advised to provide hand sanitizer for all visitors during the coronavirus crisis, yet no hand sanitizer can be found.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  One of my friends, who is a Baptist pastor, found a recipe for making your own sanitizer.  Only one problem: It required 190 proof vodka and you can’t buy that in a grocery store.  Many churches have written or unwritten codes against drinking, selling, or buying alcohol.  If a deacon or pastor was sighted walking into a liquor store, even if the purpose was righteous, it could be a cause for dismissal.  Some cite 1 Thes. 5:22 as if it were the eleventh commandment: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

What are teetotaling pastors and church leaders to do?  Solution: Make friends with Catholics, Episcopalians, non-denominational church leaders, or friends who may have no prohibitions on alcohol.  Call on others to buy the booze and you can buy the aloe vera gel.  Meet at an undisclosed location and make the sanitizer together for your congregations.  When there is a closed door, God opens a window.  Maybe in this process we could discover that people of other faith tribes love Jesus too, and sometimes breaking religious laws is the right thing to do.

Enter Jesus.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.  Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?  I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”  (Matthew 12:1-8, NIV)

Eating the grain was possibly not the only religious crime the disciples committed.  Faithful Jews interpreted the law to not work on the sabbath to mean they could not walk more than two-thirds of a mile.  There is a good chance that if the disciples were walking through the fields to go to the synagogue, they had also violated the walking mitzvot.  Religious leaders wrote other laws to side-skirt this walking rule. Today, Christians view this as silly and think such religious practices were taking things to the extreme.  Could we be guilty of doing the same? Following religious rules is complicated.

Jesus pointed out the glaring fault of all of us.  We judge.  We like to expose the unrighteousness of others while we continue in our own sin.  Jesus countered the religious leaders by teaching that God desires mercy, not man’s ideas of sacrifice.

During this recent crisis, I lost count of how many communiques from companies and churches used the phrase, “an abundance of caution.”  In addition to being abundantly cautious, what we need during this crisis is an abundance of mercy.  We need an abundance of generous love for our neighbors, assisting them during this time of need.  We need an abundance of mercy for our leaders, who have and will make some decisions that are flawed and poorly implemented.  We need to lavishly pour out sacrificial compassion for those who will lose jobs, for restaurants and small companies that will go out of business, and for healthcare workers who will contract the disease and possibly die, all through no fault of their own.  Pour out mercy for the elderly and those living alone who are now socially isolated.  Opportunities for mercy are in abundance.  May God’s character of mercy be demonstrated in all of us, especially now.

Practice Safe Church

COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis we’ve not seen in our generation.  Churches and ministries are faced with some tough decisions in the coming days.  How do you continue ministry in times such as this? How is the Church to respond?  Below are some examples of things churches can do beyond providing hand sanitizers in your hallways and not shaking hands.  These suggestions are also applicable to other disruptions to ministries, such as weather events.

1.  Encourage your people to stay home by going online. Medical experts say the major way to contain this virus is through social distancing.  They are encouraging people, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues, to stay away from public gatherings.  

This week, Lakewood Church, a non-denominational megachurch with over 50,000-weekend attenders, announced it is canceling all Sunday services over coronavirus. Instead, Lakewood Church said services will be broadcast “exclusively online” on Facebook Live, YouTube, Roku, AppleTV, Pastor Osteen’s and Lakewood Church’s websites, as well as SiriusXM channel 128.  Take Lakewood’s example and provide digital broadcasts to your church and community. Even small churches can broadcast using Facebook Live.

2.  Provide family curriculum. Recently, our daughter’s family stayed home because one of the kids was sick.  So, they had their own worship service and everyone had a contribution. The home service became one of their most memorable events of the year.  This crisis could provide an opportunity for families to worship together, but they will need help in knowing what to do. Put together a team that includes children and youth ministry specialists to design curriculum for the home worship experience.  Or, purchase curriculum materials through Christian publishers. It doesn’t have to be detailed or lengthy. The simpler and shorter the better.

3.  Use a variety of means to stay in contact with members. Small groups can stay connected through video or phone conferencing.  Use prayer chains, email, messaging, texting, and so on to stay connected.  Practice fixed hours of prayer by identifying times your church will focus its attention on praying about this crisis.  Knowing your church is praying at 10:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 8:00 p.m. encourages members as they realize that spiritual forces are being called on to assist in this time of need.

4. Self-quarantines provide opportunities for ministry.  As people self-quarantine and hospitals can no longer accept patients, the church can assist infected families by dropping off boxes of food and other provisions.  The boxes can be left on the doorstep, so your volunteers will not become exposed to the virus. Ministry goes on.

5.  Provide opportunities to give digitally.  Unfortunately, some church leaders will keep the doors of their church open because of the impact on giving.  Pastors know all too well that finances suffer when church services are called off. Don’t be bashful to tell church members of the church’s financial needs.  Provide opportunities for members to give online or through giving text apps. Share with them how their giving will be used to help others during this time of crisis.

Families in your community will experience financial difficulties as a result of this medical crisis.  Your people will give sacrificially when they know their money is going to meet this crisis.

Practicing safe church is the right thing to do.  View this crisis as an opportunity to minister to your entire community.  Guide your people in turning fear into faith.

Certification in Recovery Ministry

Rockbridge now offers a certificate in Recovery Ministry, both at the undergraduate level and at the graduate level.   Participants will develop valuable leadership skills for ministering to those struggling with hurts, hang-ups, and habits. Students who complete these five courses will receive a Certificate in Recovery Ministry.

  • Developing the Focused Life (Touchstone) Required 1st
  • Recovery Ministry
  • Personal Counseling Skills
  • Lead Like Jesus
  • Building an Effective Ministry Team

Individuals interested in these courses must qualify for admission at the degree level for which the courses are offered but are not required to complete that degree. Students receive course credit that may be applicable to other programs or seminaries.

This is an excellent path for those serving in such ministries as Celebrate Recovery who want quality training in this specific area of ministry. For more information contact admissions@rockbridge.edu and download this brochure.