Ministry Journey Blog

Thoughts on Ministry

22 Sep

What do you want?

Posted in Uncategorized on 22.09.20 by Merlyn

As I was reflecting on church ministry and leading change, the following thought came to my mind and I posted it on social media:

“Most church goers want their churches to grow. Few of them really want to reach people. Even fewer are willing to make any sacrifice to do so.”

This is the challenge in leading churches forward. It is the challenge in revitalization as well. We have taken a very consumer oriented approach to church and we think we can have a change in our effectiveness without a change in our behavior. We assume that we can have things be different without any sacrifice. This is just not reality. In fact, doing the same thing and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity.

It seems that churches simply need to be honest about who they are, what they want and what they are willing to do to reach people for Jesus.

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20 Aug

A Need to be Needed

Posted in Uncategorized on 20.08.20 by Merlyn

One of the things that a lot of people in ministry struggle with, but do not always recognize or admit is a need to be needed. Early on in my career this turned out to be a huge issue for me. It is, at its heart, rooted in something good, a love for people. The best pastors and ministry staff care deeply about people and want to care for, support and help them. Ministry attracts a lot of helpers, but often, our identity gets wrapped up in helping.

That often leads to a need to be needed, rather than looking to serve people through the power of Jesus in us. Our identity becomes wrapped up in what we do, our work and our call. Our identity is never in what we do, it is in who we are, more importantly our identity is rooted Christ. We are children of God.

While it is great to want to help people, we need to be careful not to become addicted to helping, addicted to being needed. Its a fine line, but chances are, if you ask those closest to you, they will be able to tell you whether or not this is an issue for you. Its certainly worth examining. 

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20 Jul

Life on the Other Side

Posted in Uncategorized on 20.07.20 by Merlyn

After working in churches with only a couple periods of 1-3 months off, I am for the first time in 20 years living life on the other side of the church, as a worshipper. This transition has been wonderful and has gone much easier than I would have ever of hoped or expected. 

As I have made this transition, I have worked to think carefully about how to best be a part of a church after two decades of serving as a pastor or staff member in a church. I knew I did not want to just attend and I reject taking a consumer approach to church. I also knew it would be critical to set boundaries given all my work in the church, boundaries for my own good and out of respect to the staff of the church. In the end, my goal has been to be the church member that I would love to have had as a pastor. So far, the following things have been really important in this journey:

  1. Make my primary goal encouraging and supporting the pastors and staff in the church, praying for, talking with, listening to and blessing them in any way that I can. Pastors and staff face a lot of challenges with little encouragement and support, especially in the challenging time in history we find ourselves in.
  2. Pray, pray, pray. I pray for my church, the pastors and staff every day.
  3. Assume the best in the pastors and staff. This is easy and important. Its a rare thing to experience in a church as a staff member. 
  4. Be willing to do anything that you can to help, jumping right in to ministry in the church. For many pastors, a break, an easing in is needed for health and that is good.
  5. Give generously of time, talent and treasure. 
  6. Tend to your own spiritual life well.
  7. Don’t be a consumer. Don’t go to church to be ‘fed’ or made happy. Don’t evaluate anything based on your own preferences or wants, instead, look for the ways that the things you see can be good and helpful.
  8. Don’t engage in anything that is petty. Often, the things that church members focus on are the petty things that have nothing to do with the mission, the Kingdom or the Gospel. 
  9. Offer genuine praise your church, pastors and staff in the church, the community and online.
  10. Don’t offer an opinion on something unless asked to help or offer an opinion or if you develop a relationship where sharing your thoughts is right, natural and helpful.  

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22 Jun

The Problem with Petty

Posted in Uncategorized on 22.06.20 by Merlyn

One of the challenges to working and leading in the church is the intense amount of pettiness that can exist. Pettiness between church members, staff, church members towards staff and pettiness around small issues/desires/preferences. It is the figurative death by 1,000 (or in some cases 100,000) paper cuts.

Having served and worked with a variety of chruches, I have seen this to varying degrees. Its not always a commentary on the quality or character of the people, but it is always a commentary on the culture of the church. 

The pettiness does not always just happen while you are serving a church as a staff member. It can also happen after you have served a church, even with those whom you have a good relationship and with whom you have no conflicts. 

In some cases, I have remained in the community I served after leaving a church. That has been an interesting experience for sure. While I am always honest and transparent, I think it is critical to truly separate and not worry about or be involved in the church you have served in the past. Its good to give space and distance to the leadership. After leaving a church, I would find that bumping into people from the church would either be a great experience, or a deeply petty one.  There always seems to be a trend of either friendliness or rudeness. Its always the case where some people are just awkward, regardless of which of the two camps the experience fell into. 

I have found the latter camp (the rude one) to be very difficult. At first, I took it far too personal and allowed it to be a value statement when it should not have been. As I have grown however, I have transitioned to a place where it has become both baffling and sad.

Its unfortunate that in any transition of relationship that we would have to ever be anything but kind to one another. We all have our days. We all have our moments, but we too easily forget that we are all children of God.

Be good to one another. Be good to your leaders, even after they leave you.

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20 May

Reflections on Leading Worship Post Covid-19

Posted in Uncategorized on 20.05.20 by Merlyn

While I am not serving full time in a church setting, I have been filling in from time to time in various churches. On Sunday May 10, I led worship and preached at a church for the first time since the Covid-19 restrictions went into place. It was the first time this church of under 25 was meeting in 8 weeks.

During the pandemic, I have been diligently working to think through the implications of Covid-19 on the church, much like I would when I was serving full time in a church. I did this in order to help churches in the midst of the pandemic as a part of my work for Preparing for Amazement Ministries. 

I have had a distinct advantage during this time not serving in a church, as it gave me the time and ability to see from the outside without being in the middle of the crisis. I had the disadvantage of not having to make the decisions pastors were making, so I have and will remain cautious about offering unsolicited advice.

As I walked in to the church building I knew it would be one of the more unique and unfamiliar experiences in my life in spite of stepping into church buildings to lead most Sundays for about two decades.

I had taken plenty of time to think through the big picture, the meta issues if you will. The big implications, challenges and opportunities.

I spent more than adequate time thinking through the little stuff: communion, greeting, offering plates, masks and more.

What I had not thought about was the spiritual tone of this time and the need to create a spiritual transition as a part of the service. I should have thought about this, but even if I had, I also know my ability to do so would be limited. The truth is I needed to be in the worship space and in the moment, listening to the whisper of the Holy Spirit to know I needed to say and do something. I needed to listen carefully in order to offer my best, meager offering of words of transition.

After doing so, I found myself exhausted, yet certain it was needed, critical in fact.

While we were back in worship, we were not back to normal and never will be.

It took me a couple days to process it all. I feel called to share the experience, for what it’s worth, not as advice, but in hope it may be helpful to some.

In any crisis it is critical to name and frame the challenges, yet also point to hope. This reality was the framework for my brief, pre-sermon (or bonus sermon) comments.

I shared honestly with this congregation that this crisis has caused people all around the world, perhaps for the first time, to simultaneously experience a shared, corporate grief. We are grieving all kinds of losses: temporary, perceived loss of freedom, loss of routine, loss of certainty, economic loss and more. I shared with the congregation that Covid-19 presents many challenges for the church, and we need to name those and rather than fight them, work with them. I mentioned that the old normal is gone and will not return. I pointed to the reality that God is speaking to us in this, slowing us down, showing us what have become idols in our lives. I concluded by noting that the greatest cost of this pandemic will be the toll it takes on mental health.

I then made a transition to pointing to hope. I put most of my time, effort and energy into this portion of my remarks. I shared that Covid-19 has presented many opportunities for the church and for followers of Jesus. I reminded these faithful Christians that God redeems all things. While God did not cause Covid-19, God can use it for good as he does all things: good, bad and ugly. I reminded the people of the power of slowing down and hearing the whisper of the Holy Spirit and that this crisis can be seen as a gift now and going forward. I reminded them that a new normal will emerge and that this new normal could be a more beautiful normal for them, for the church and for the world. I encouraged them to ask themselves what the Holy Spirit might be saying to them. I encouraged us all to ask ourselves what has Covid-19 made possible.

It was not my best, most polished oration, yet I know the Spirit was speaking because while I have thought about these things, I do not think I could have the wisdom, courage and clarity I did in that moment if it were not being directed by the Holy Spirit.

Many faithful, church-going Christians are desperate to get back to normal. It would seem natural to just walk back into church as if nothing happened, perhaps with different ways of doing greeting, communion, offering and with some masks and hand sanitizer. To do so would be understandable, but spiritually speaking might be a mistake. Scott Cormode of Fuller Seminary notes that as pastors and ministry leaders, we are to be ‘spiritual interpreters,’ pointing our people to the bigger spiritual narrative at play in the midst of the events of this world. For any pastor or ministry leader, there has not been a more important and critical time to take the time to point to the spiritual story at play than in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For all the time I have spent reflecting on Covid-19 and the implications for the church, I almost missed the most important thing. The need to create an honest, healthy, spiritual transition for the people we lead.

Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson

Executive Director, Preparing for Amazement Ministries

www.amazed15.org

www.revdrorange.com

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21 Apr

3 Big Things Ministry Leaders Need to Consider in the Midst of Covid-19

Posted in Uncategorized on 21.04.20 by Merlyn

Covid-19 has quickly changed the world in unprecedented ways, especially the church. While parts of the pandemic and its implications are not unprecedented, many are, especially in the past 100 years.

As I continue to reflect on Covid-19, the church and ministry, there are three big things that all ministry leaders need to consider in the midst of Covid-19.

Corporate Grief is a Different Beast

Grief is always difficult and is most often a rather strange beast. While we are accustomed in ministry to dealing with individual grief and even moments of community grief, we have little to no real experience with corporate grief. Perhaps our only experience is from September 11. The primary emotion that we are experiencing with Covid-19 is in fact grief. Grief is not limited to loss of life, it is the real or perceived loss of anything. Covid-19 has brought a lot of loss: security, certainty, economic loss, relational loss, loss of routine, loss of freedom. For the first time in or memory, the entire country, the entire world is experiencing simultaneous, daily, corporate grief. This requires a different approach and is an issue that all ministry leaders will have to deal with. How will you address corporate grief?

Crisis Always Presents Challenges AND Opportunities

“Don’t waste a good crisis.” Donald Miller. In any crisis there are both challenges and opportunities. Its critical to name the challenges, but to focus on the opportunities. As followers of Jesus, we believe in redemption, the idea that God is making all things new. In any crisis, God makes good of it. As leaders, it is our job to make sure that we see the challenges for what they are, yet recognize there is no challenge that we can ever face that cannot be conquered by God, that there is no challenge that will be the end of us. Culturally, we tend to focus on the bad, the shortcomings and not consider the blessings, the gifts, the opportunities. Great leaders name the challenges, but they point to hope. Great leaders look for the opportunities and partner with God to leverage them for good. What are the challenges for you and those you lead in the midst of Covid-19? What are the opportunities presented to you and those you lead in the midst of this crisis?

The Old Normal is Gone – A New Normal Will Emerge

A lot of leaders, especially those in the church will be tempted to claw their way back to normal as the restrictions and crisis subside. This is naive at best, delusional and selfish at worse. The old normal is going and it is not coming back. This season of crisis is a season of transition. Just for the record, transition sucks. While a new normal will emerge, it doesn’t mean everything changes. At the same time, we will not have as much control over the new normal as we would like to think. We also cannot stick our heads in the sand and hope that it will go away. “Crisis is the cradle of innovation. Crisis challenges your methods, but it can give new life to your mission.” Carey Nieuwhof. Much of what will change is our methods. We tend to worship our methods, often at the cost of our mission, especially in crisis. As leaders, we need to be looking to and for the new normal and reflect on how we can achieve our mission in the new normal. We need to be willing to change our method for the sake of our mission. Now, more than in our lifetime, we have less certainty and clarity about what the new normal might look like, but that does not mean we cannot begin to think, examine and reflect. Are you thinking about, reflecting on and preparing for the new normal?


The ministry I lead, Preparing for Amazement Ministries is leading some free open forums on these topics. You can learn more here.

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20 Feb

Generosity

Posted in Uncategorized on 20.02.20 by Merlyn

Having served in ministry in some capacity for over 20 years now, I have learned so much and have been blessed by the growth that comes from working in ministry settings. It has not always been easy, pleasant or joyful, but it has always brought me closer to Jesus. 

A particular area of growth has been growth in generosity. This generosity has not just been financial (though that is where the greatest growth has happened), but in many other areas as well. I have learned to be more generous with my time. I have learned to be more generous in assuming the good in people, taking a posture of optimism and hope. I have grown in generosity in forgiveness, seeking forgiveness and apologizing. While I can, need to and will continue to grow in each of these areas, I am thankful for the grace of God, the good and tough lessons of ministry and the many people the Holy Spirit has used in my life to help me grow in the generosity Christ calls me to.

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18 Jan

The Other Side of the Curtain

Posted in Uncategorized on 18.01.20 by Merlyn

One of the strangest things to experience as a pastor is looking for a new church. Like most pastors, I have primarily attended the chruches I have served other than weekends off or a couple Sundays here and there. For the first time in a long time, my family and I are searching for a church to attend. Other than a couple months between jobs, we have not done this at all before. 

Visiting chruches as a pastor is interesting. I am not a consumer, nor am I finding myself making comparisons or critiques. That said, I know a lot about various chruches and churches in general and so that makes things tricky. What is nice is going to a church and not worrying about any of the details, sleeping in, showing up 10-15 minutes before it starts and simply sitting and worshipping.

Listening to a good sermon is a great gift and a meaningful experience. Simply put, it is wonderful to worship with my family.

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21 Dec

Leaving

Posted in Uncategorized on 21.12.19 by Merlyn

No matter the reason, leaving a ministry position is hard. For most pastors and ministry leaders, at least those who are professionals who care, a lot has been invested. Leaving comes with grief. Grief comes with a lot of feelings. Sadness, hope, excitement, loss, anger, shame, denial, guilt, frustration and blame just to name a few. I have yet to perfectly handle leaving, but even though I left due to some concerns, I am working hard to make this my best departure yet. I love the church and its people and want nothing but the best for it. I have invested nearly everything that I have and am into this church for the last 6.5 years and want to do all I can in the final month to leave well and to leave it well. A key part of leaving well is recognizing that everyone, even those who are happy about a departure struggle with fear and grief. Fear and grief make us do, believe and say the strangest things. I am reminded of the words of Jesus, ‘love covers a multitude of sins.’

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19 Nov

Next Season

Posted in Uncategorized on 19.11.19 by Merlyn

It is a season of change and transition for me, one that is clearly from God. 

On October 10, I submitted my resignation as Senior Pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Auburn, IN. It was a painful decision, but the right one.

Ultimately this decision was the decision that was best for my health and the health and well being of my family. God speaks to us in a variety of ways; through the scriptures, through others, through suffering, through circumstances and more. In all my life, never have I heard God speak more clearly before, during and in hindsight than I have on this decision. It’s been laughable in many ways. I have also had a ton of support from family and friends. Jessica and I have seen a dramatic drop in blood pressure, positive change in the disposition of our kids and more interest in faith from both kids than we have seen in at least two years. I leave with no regrets at all and for that I am thankful.

Certainly there is some sadness and grief and a little bit of fear as well. That said, we also have some excitement and most importantly a great sense of peace. We remain thankful and ask for your prayers for our family as we trust God and seek clarity out what is next.

As to whats next, stay tuned for more about that soon. Exciting things ahead!

Much Love,

Marcus

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