The Truth About Pulpit Ministry

July 15, 2009

For American Churches of Christ, 46% of the members are members of the roughly 1500 congregations of 200 or more, while the other 54% belong to the other 10,600 congregations. About 1/4 of us are in congregations of 400 or more.

To assess what that means for aspiring ministers, let’s make the following assumptions:

  • The average preacher will work with 8 different congregations during his career.
  • The top 10% of preachers (talent-wise) will rotate through the top 5% of congregations (membership-wise), leaving the other 95% of the pulpits to be filled by the rest of us.
  • The pool of aspiring pulpit preachers is randomly distributed throughout the brotherhood.
  • The pool of available pulpits is randomly distributed. (Probably not true. I suspect an inverse correlation between congregation size and pulpit turnover, but since I don’t have enough hard data to adjust properly, we’ll go with what we have.)

If these assumptions are valid, this means that:

  • 48% of career pulpit preachers will NEVER preach full-time for a congregation with more than 200 members, and another 31% will only do so once.
  • At least 25% of the pool of future preachers are, right now, members of a congregation that is larger than the largest church they will ever preach for.
  • 24% of church members will never hear a preacher outside the top 10% of the talent pool on a regular basis.

Anybody planning to make a career out of pulpit ministry, especially in churches of Christ, would be well advised to think seriously about these realities. One mentor advised me back in the day, “If you could ever imagine yourself ever doing anything else besides preaching — ever — go do that.”

I also hope that those tasked with training our future preachers will take these numbers to heart as they decide how best to prepare our young men for this kind of career.



July 10, 2009

“The “G” is upside down.”

About a year ago, give or take, the county or the state or somebody put a new street sign at the beginning of the road. Our church is on the corner of Highway 181 and what is now called Pleasant Grove Road in Todd County, Kentucky.  When we moved here four years ago, it was called “Pleasant Grove Church Road.”  Nobody knows whose idea the name change was, or why; only that not long after I became the preacher here somebody painted over the word “Church” on the original street sign in the same green color as the rest of the metal background.

For all I know the name could have been changed years ago, and only now is anybody getting around to correcting the signage.  That’s life in the country; things happen when they happen.  The first lesson I had to learn moving here from the big city and later the suburbs is that in the country, nothing happens right away just because you want it to.  I’ve had DSL Internet availability at the church building for 18 months, but cannot even get dial-up at my house 3/4 of a mile away.  Five years of nagging AT&T to provide service to a willing customer, and still nothing.

Finally, earlier this spring, the road got a new sign.  Four inches square on each side and sticking six feet up out of the ground, the kelly green post marks the official beginnig of Pleasant Grove Road.  All of the mailboxes and house numbers between the highway and the forest are taken from the distance to that piece of timber.  If you’re looking for somebody who lives on this street, you no longer have to peer through the trees and limbs to find the street sign; it’s right there and will not be ignored.

But the “G” is upside-down.

What’s more, it may be upside-down on purpose.  “Pleasant Grove Road” is spelled out on two of the post’s four sides in spray-painted 3-inch white stencils.  On both sides, the letter “G” is flipped over, oriented to look like a backwards lowercase “e.”  Why?  Maybe the person who painted the sign made the same mistake twice.  Maybe he messed up the first side, noticed his mistake, then decided that instead of fixing it he’d just make the other side the same way and hope nobody would notice.  Or maybe he honestly thought that that was how the letter “G” was supposed to look.

In Todd County, all three explainations are equaly plausible.  But none of them really matter.

What does it say about me that the first thing I notice about the new street sign is not how much better it is than the old one, but how silly it looks with an upside-down letter?

I guess I’m just a fault-finder by nature.  I look at situations, organizations, and yes, even people, with an eye toward fixing what’s wrong.  I want people and things to be the best they can be.  But every day when I go for my walks/runs down Pleasant Grove Road, I have to walk past that street sign with the upside down “G” and realize that not everything is within my power to fix.  There’s a reason my mom and sisters warned my wife before we even got married not to let me try to fix things around the house.  I can tell that something is broken, but I have absolutely no capacity to do anything about it.  (True story — I once came within an inch of killing myself plugging in a dryer.)

Perhaps that upside down “G” is there to remind me of my own limitations. Perhaps it is there because I need to be more patient with people, with life, with powers beyong my control.  Perhaps it’s there because that’s just the way country life is — beautiful but flawed, proud yet slightly defective, wanting to be appreciated for its usefulness instead of criticized for its fallenness.

Whatever the reason, the signpost — upside-down “G” and all — marks the beginning of my journeys down a beautiful country mile.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What Makes a Winner

July 7, 2009

Winning is not giving other money, then in the end having nothing.  Winning is having other people give you money, then in the end they have something.

Salt & Light

July 1, 2009

Some random thoughts on being the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world:”

  1. Christians are truth-tellers.  We show the world what it really is.  Sometimes that reflects the glory if its Creator, sometimes that stands in judgment.  The whole purpose of dark is to allow evil a place to hide.
  2. Christians do not make bad things good.  We can make good things better (as salt does its flavor) and we can keep good things from becoming bad (as salt preserves).  But we cannot create good out of evil.  If something is bad, no amount of salt can make it good.  It doesn’t need seasoning, it needs transformation.
  3. Christians work best in small groups.  What salt overwhelms, it ruins.  What light overwhelms, it blinds.  Too much can be as dangerous — and as harmful — as too little.
  4. Christians’ work in the world does not draw attention to the worker.  Dispensed properly, salt does not replace the flavor of the food; it makes the food taste more like itself.  The person who lights a candle wants to see the room, not the flame.
  5. Christians are more noticeable in their absence than in their presence.

Highlights of the National Jail & Prison Ministry Workshop

June 17, 2009

Aside from spending four days with my dad . . .

1.  Freddie Anderson.  Amen, lights!

2.  Hearing from chaplains, especially Jim Burrus.  Those folks do hard work and, for the most part, do it well.

3.  Getting to see some of the “innards” of NLB.  Knowing how something is supposed to work goes a long way in making it go.

4.  Running into the Pelhams at U&I.

5.  The boat.

6.  The bridge.

7.  The class on “Relapse Prevention.”  Probably the best and most useful class of te entire weekend.

8.  The history lesson on Prisons and Corrections Ministry.  It’s amazing how many approaches to crime and criminals have been implimented down through the years.  It’s equally amazing that, when it comes to crime prevention, not much has worked.

9.  The material on dealing with people post-release, epsecially when they show up at church.  There’s a lot of ground to cover there that is so far unplowed.

10.  Ron and Thomas’s classes on what to look for in a volunteer and how to train them.  Jail ministry isn’t for everybody, but those with the right skills and personality can do well.

Ways it could be better:

1.  Podcasting.  Corpus Christi, Texas is a long way from just about everything.  Granted, it’s not Anchorage, but still.  I doubt that the availability of podcasts would keep anybody away who would have come otherwise.  Likewise, those who did come sometimes ran into schedule conflicts.  There were a couple of classes I had to miss because I was in the other room.  I suppose I could buy the DVDs (see #3), but listening to a podcast would be much simpler (and cheaper).

2.  Feedback forms.  Planners scheduling speakers for next year and the year after would almost ceetainly benefit from hearing what the people in the classes thought of the presentations and the speakers.

3.  Pricing/Merchandising.  Cutting back on some of the frills might have allowed the organizers to lower the registration fee.  There also seemed in some classes to be a bit of “hard sell” put on for the NLB stuff.  I get that nothing is free, but in tough times when money is tight anyway and people have already shelled out quite a bit just to get there, offering more stuff for sale in classes seemed a bit over-the-top.  The time and place for selling things was after class in the display room, not during the presentations themselves.

4.  Classes on “The Rest of the Story.”  Thomas Snow made the point that crime prevention, youth involvement programs, benevolence, aftercare, and family ministry all play a part in jail work.  Even thogh most of the people there are inside-the-facility workers, it’s also important to know what we should and shouldn’t do in these other areas.

4a.  One aspect of this I would like to see somebody explore someday is how churches minister to prison and jail guards.  It’s a fairly well-established sociological fact that while the poor often find themselves in jail, the near-poor often find themselves working there.  Jails and prisons are typically built in areas where construction and labor costs are low, and they often get their staff from people who live in those areas and can’t find work elsewhere.  Since churches in such areas tend to be small anyway, the dynamics of having a significant fraction of the membership working in jails and/or prisons can sometimes make trust an issue within the congregation.  I’d be curious to hear from preachers and elders who have dealt with this to see how they handle it.

5.  More from correctons professionals.  We heard from chaplains.  I’d like to hear from wardens, probation/parole officers, even guards about what they do and how we can help.  At the Chaplaincy Training School I attended in Fort Wayne, Indiana many years ago, one of the best resource people they had was the warden of a facility in Charleston, South Carolina.  He showed us some of the ins and outs of running a jail.  Knowing that made it a lot easier to understand some of what administrators have asked of us since.

Prisoners for Christ

June 16, 2009

I just returned from the National Jail & Prison Ministry Workshop in Corpus Christi, Texas.

There is some seriously powerful ministry going on behind bars, some of which is even happening in Todd County.

The Truth About “Youth Ministry”

June 3, 2009

Interesting numbers:

Churches with youth ministries and churches without them lose kids at about the same rate.

Churches that offer VBS, camp, Bible classes, etc., lose kids at the same rate as those without them.

Big churches lose kids as rapidly as small churches. The same rule applies to worship styles, demographics, even geography.

That’s right. “Youth ministry” as traditionally conceived in Churches of Christ makes NO STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE in the retention rate of kids who grow up in it.

In fact, the only real predictor of youth retention is the marital status of the parents.

If Mom and Dad are committed to God AND TO EACH OTHER, their kids are far more likely to stay faithful as adults than kids whose parents are separated either by death or divorce. Even then there’s no guarantee, but as ministers it’s the best we can do.