5 Ways to Conquer Sermon Prep Stress

Sermon prep for the bivocational pastor can be a challenging issue. From selecting the right topic to developing ideas in the midst of unrelated work, crafting a sermon requires forward thinking and resolute diligence. Whether you’re a novice bivocational pastor or a seasoned veteran, here are some ways I’ve learned to conquer sermon prep stress.

  1. Pray at all costs

It’s been said no man is greater than his prayer life. Considering prayer, quiet time, and sermon prep are mutually inclusive, one could also deduce how no pastor is greater than his sermon prep. Of course, ideas come and go and the needs of people change; however, the one thing that must never waver is the commitment to pray (for revelation, the people of your congregation, etc.) at all costs. preachingpyramid-1024x777

To put it another way, the foundation of any teaching must always begin with prayer since it allows God to be the driver as opposed to our own finitude. So whether you’re discouraged or simply have sermon writer’s block, pray through the grind and position yourself for illumination by carving out closet time between you and God. Oh, and while you’re at is, don’t forget to bring a note/iPad so you can jot down what God tells you for future reference (which reminds me…go see “War Room” when you have the chance; such a powerful film…you won’t regret it) .

  1. Look ahead

I’m a fan of living in the now; however, with sermon prep, looking ahead isn’t just a good idea; it’s absolutely necessary. For instance, there are times when God will unveil a sermon series to you, as opposed to a stopgap message. When this happens, there are two appropriate responses: 1) rejoicing and 2) projecting (i.e. looking ahead). Not to suggest a la carte messages are inferior; I’m just saying when you’re given a sermon series, it’s critical to a) let the Word/assignment marinate in your spirit so it can be processed and b) look ahead so it can be divvied up systematically.

  1. Take advantage of breaks

At my job, there are two types of seasons: busy seasons and “less busy” seasons. During “less busy” seasons, my workload will occasionally stall to the point I’m able to reference my youth pastor worklist (or my wife 😉 and chisel it down so I can direct my focus on other things (like this blog).

Granted, productivity can still happen during busy seasons; it just means anticipation must be met with greater intentionality. Case in point: during year-end closeout season (one of the busiest for accountants), I know at the very least, I have two fifteen-minute breaks and an hour lunch. This means regardless of how busy work gets, I can take advantage of 7.5 hours of potential prep time.

Of course, we all find ourselves in different boats on different waters in different seasons; however, the point here is: if you seek the opportune moment, you will surely find it (Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9; Jeremiah 29:13).

  1. Flesh out the content

Some of my greatest pastoral mentors are known to manuscript their sermons. While I certainly understand the benefit of such an approach, I also know it can be more practical for some to develop a detailed “five point-ish” outline, with a clear-cut introduction and conclusion. Whatever method you use, make sure the content is fleshed out. By this, I mean a message with a coherent outline and an organic flow sprinkled with some applicable illustrations to help the audience track with the truth1.

  1. Develop a routine

Preaching is just as much week-by-week rhythm as it is in-the-moment delivery. While congregations and experiences vary, the common denominator for rotation speakers lies in developing a steady routine tailored to what works best for them. For me, I like devoting select days to content development/study and others to revision and delivery. Of course, each week is unique with the potential to go off-script. Yet, while those weeks can be unnerving, they don’t have to be as long as I reference an establish accountability system or development checklist. Doing so will not only sharpen the content, but enhance confidence leading up to the sermon date.

Perhaps you’ve discovered some other helpful tidbits aiding you in your sermon prep. If so, feel free to share them in the comment section below.

Footnotes

  1. I believe the most memorable sermons feature applicable illustrations. For me, if a powerful truth is presented without an analogy/work picture attached (or without it amplified on a big screen for me to read à tweet), it can sometimes go in one ear, out the other; however, as a youth minister, I’ve learned the value in bolding the truth by associated it to something presentable. At any rate, the goal is not to entertain and/or convince the audience of the truth’s relevance (i.e. let God do His job) as much as it is giving them a greater chance to remember it in the first place.

Photo credits: thefrontporch.org, preachersinstitute.com

How to Survive a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Crappy Day

Have you ever had a really, really, really bad day?

You know…the kind of day where absolutely nothing goes right…where the only musterable reaction is a masquerading laughter to hide behind…

Well, let’s just say I had one of those infamous episodes recently…

…one that was not only terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad all wrapped into one…but one that gave a whole new (and literal) meaning of what it’s like to have a ‘crappy day’…

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It all started last Wednesday when I returned home from a decent day at work, ironically enough. I was on the phone with my wife discussing our next-day travels to Atlanta when I suddenly slammed into a brick wall…disguised as an offensive odor straight out of a National Geographic documentary gone wrong.

The smell was downright unbearable…like fermented dung reeking from the decaying innards of an infested beast.

Okay, okay…maybe it wasn’t that bad, but clearly…something was not right.

I mean…if you deck the halls with cinnamon branches and autumn-wreath scented candles one weekend and a few days later, come home to a fragrance of “hazy aftermath o’ nuclear bowel explosion”…something has to be off, right?

At any rate, I could only pray the stench belonged to a recently deceased rodent rotting in certain porcelain confines. Yet, as I slowly crept towards Selah’s crate, the writing on the wall became quite clear…

…it just so happened to be in the form of droopy ordure (feces).

Before I continue, let me just say maybe someday, I’ll unlock the mystery of how projectile excrement can condensate outside caged quarters while also splattering the wall as if it was an abstract Jackson Pollock painting. For now, I’ll just say I found Selah miserably trapped in a sharty prison…and it was up to me to set her free from the demonic oppression that had possessed her stool.

So after spending the next hour conquering Selah’s anal glands as well as my chemoreceptor triggers, I contacted my wife a second time to discuss our ever-evolving Wednesday night gameplan. Initially, I was to meet Lyssah at church following [what I thought would be] a brief dog-sitting break to pick her up from a women’s ministry promo vidshooting for Sunday service. We’d then return home, eat dinner, and head back out to church for our youth discipleship gathering. But as it turned out, due to changes in Selah’s health as well as our church’s Wednesday night schedule2, Lyssah would have to forgo youth service to tend Selah’s “issues”, leaving me to fly solo on the youth front.

A perfectly understandable predicament…all things considered; however, having lost 45 minutes cleaning fecal matter, an additional 30 minutes due to our church’s Wednesday night time shift, and an additional 10 minutes of extra prep time as a result of Lyssah’s impending absence, I realized I had no choice but to leave Selah unattended, considering we had no “plan B” for her now “out-of-commission” crate.

Granted, hindsight is 20/20, but at the time, it seemed like a worthy risk. After all, Lyssah was already on her way home…and I mean, c’mon…what damage could Selah possibly do in just fifteen minutes?

Well, as it turned out…quite a bit actually.

Of course, I can’t vouch for every canine conundrum, but what I can say is at some point during that fifteen minute window, Selah had snuck into the bedroom, located the sparkling spectacle that was my wife’s engagement ring…and devoured it3.

Now, thankfully, I wasn’t aware of this prior to service; however, after returning home to a wife and dog pawing around the bedroom floor on all fours, it didn’t take long for any incurred exuberance to dissipate.

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A quick glance at my wife’s eyes told me everything.

Something valuable had gone missing…

…and something just as valuable had contributed to it.

Needless to say, once I realized our furry companion had consumed Lyssah’s engagement ring, I couldn’t help but wonder what the crap4 was going on. Yet, as I watched my wife morph into a modern day version of the woman looking for her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), it hit me how our joy was being deliberately pursued.

So Lyssah and I prayed, packed our suitcases, watched some 30 Rock, then prayed some more…residually discouraged…yet hopeful God would shed light on the missing ring…and cure Selah’s rectal dysfunction.

The next day, as we started our Georgia journey, we realized we hadn’t taken every negative thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5) to the obedience of Christ. Having recently walked this issue out with LEGACYouth, we knew full well what we needed to do.

First, we recognized we’d been under assault from the enemy. So we acknowledged our authority in Christ and rebuked his schemes. Secondly, we confessed we hadn’t been as immediate in our obedience to overcome. So we repented and asked God to forgive us and redeem any unsurrendered part of our hearts. Thirdly, we renounced our fear and replaced it with godly belief and truth. And lastly, we expressed thanksgiving unto the Lord for all He had done for us.

Once we took these steps and laid our troubles at the feet of Jesus, I kid you not…the atmosphere in the car completely changed.

Suddenly, we felt secure in our circumstances knowing we’d been given everything we needed to be content in the Lord. Suddenly we felt excited knowing there was nothing Satan could do to break our confidence in Christ. And suddenly, we felt hopeful that God would meet our needs…and then some.

You talk about a weary car-ride transforming into a triumphant road-trip…no question, we had entered into a new peace as we crossed over into a new place…both internally and locationally.

So I guess the moral of the story is: you may feel the emoji of your life is nothing more than a steamy pile of crap. You may feel burdened by adverse circumstances…and think there’s nothing you can do when the devil comes after you.

But I’m telling you…when you realize your joy is being pursued, pursue joy in the Lord right back…choose to see it as strength in the times you feel Satan is after your weakness. And if you feel powerless to do this, then just pray…even if you feel you don’t have the words or the energy. Why? ‘Cause it’s in these moments God wants to reveal His power to you…to encourage you…and remind you that He’ll not only strengthen you in the dark times…He is your strength every second of every day!

My encouragement to you, friends, is be unwavering in your courage, especially when Satan comes knocking at your door seeking to rob you of the light you carry. Rather than feel helpless and/or assume you’ve done something wrong, why not let Jesus answer the call. After all, as Billy Graham once said, He’s the best home security system there is.

Footnotes

1)  Nightly classes had moved to a 6:30-8:00 pm timeslot as opposed to the usual 7:00-8:30 pm

2) A last-second assignment that had just been given to us the day before, mind you

3) A peculiar stunt considering she’d never done something like this before

4) Pun intended


Photo credits: sarah.theworkexperiment.com, nikkifort.com, https://tm-pilbox.global.ssl.fastly.net

3 Reasons Why Bivocational Ministry is Necessary

Last time out, I talked about three unique challenges for 21st century youth pastors. Today, I’m going to change course a bit and discuss three reasons why bivocational ministry is necessary, especially in the time we live.

1) It Extends Kingdom Power

For those who are in Christ, there’s no greater call than to be an extension of God’s life (i.e. fullness, wholeness, and freedom) to the lost1. Unfortunately, for many churches, such life remains concealed by a culturally-dictated ‘separation of church and state’ philosophy.

Granted, the relationship between church and state has been controversial since the discovery of America. Yet, despite where the 21st century western church is today, I believe the body of Christ must remain fearlessly committed to farm faith and carry the Gospel torch into secular arenas, especially the bivocational.

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‘Cause when we dare to live what we preach, we help chisel away part of the wall between culture and church by giving people within our sphere of influence the opportunity to taste and see that the Lord…is…good (Psalm 34:8).

Now I admit: representing the Gospel consistently in the ho-hum places of the world can be a great challenge; however, if we truly seek to leave a Kingdom legacy wherever God takes us, we’ll not only inspire people through the decisions we make, but also position ourselves to be supernaturally refreshed.

So in short, if we’re faithful to salt our surroundings with faith, hope and love, we’ll not only inspire the broken, but also encourage the saved (through steadfast encouragement and accountability).

2) It Promotes Greater Reliance

Bivocational ministry is complex…especially when you consider we live in an increasingly pluralistic society where more and more ministers juggle multiple responsibilities and work secondary jobs to make ends meet.

While this may sound like the foundation of a stress-laden lifestyle, truth is, there are many benefits to living a life full of personal and financial sacrifices.

For one thing, a bivocational life compels one towards greater reliance upon God.

What do I mean by “greater reliance”?

Well, for starters, “greater reliance” means you don’t have to live in perpetual discouragement when you find yourself wishing you had more time to invest relationally and/or ministerially. In fact, with “greater reliance”, you can simply confess your limitations to God and invite Him into your circumstances, regardless of how they look2.

Note: For those looking for deeper theology here, I know this may sound painfully basic, but trust me…when you put “greater reliance” into practice, you’ll not only strengthen your spiritual walk, but the tent pegs of your faith’s influence as well.

How awesome is that?

3) It Encourages the Saints

I mentioned earlier how bivocational ministry is necessary in the sense it extends the power and influence of Christ’s Kingdom further into secular settings.

While this is undoubtedly true, it shouldn’t overshadow the fact bivocational ministry is also meant to be a place of encouragement for other leaders trying to stay the course.

In fact, I’m submit we should be just as passionate about reaching “the ends of the earth” as taking advantage of the “open door” opportunities God sets up for us to share our testimony with those in similar boats of life.

As far as people thinking this isn’t necessary, especially since more bivocational ministers leads to a more diluted pastoral profession, let me just say this: if we’re serious about expanding truth, then shouldn’t we want to reach those who’ve been given the opportunity to reach more people? Or are we so concerned about our own qualifications we forget God has already qualified the called (Romans 8:30)?

I mean…I confess…I can be a “challenge accepted” kind of guy.

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But as one who doesn’t buy into the ‘pastor is only a pastor if he’s a licensed full-timer’ notion, I believe it’s important for bivocational ministers to realize though the balancing act may involve certain acquiescences, ministerial professionalism (which includes supporting our fellow leaders in the Lord) should never be one of them.

As the Scriptures say, we work for the Lord in all things (Colossians 3:23-24)…and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

I don’t know about you, but I definitely want to be on call to live the call3 (#ambassador) every waking moment.  ‘Cause at the end of the day, whether it’s from a pulpit, cubicle or cash register, what truly matters is God being utmostly glorified.

Footnotes

1) In other words, restoring God’s original design

2) Thus, living bivocationally not only carries the potential to develop stronger reliance, but sweeter intimacy as well. Furthermore, I’d submit if we’re living our bivocational callings effectively, then there should be moments along the journey where we have no choice but to fully surrender and proclaim our dependence upon the Lord

3) Somebody issue a ‘Hashtag Watch’ for this 😉

Photo credits: http://www.releasetheape.com & centerpointchris.files.wordpress.com

5 Inspired Lessons for Today’s Youth Pastors

We live in a time when the church is radically changing, a reality no more evident than among today’s youth. Yet, while the challenge may seem intimidating, when we, as youth pastors, seek to better understand the times, we can discover powerful truth and application.

Granted, it’d take a year and a day to unpack them all so for now, let’s focus on five inspired lessons for today’s youth pastor…

1) Understand the boundaries of social media

It’s no secret today’s youth live and die by social media. Perhaps you’ve noticed more of your youth defining their identity by how many Facebook likes, selfie comments, or Instagram followers they have.

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Regardless, it’s critical we, as Generation Z youth leaders, understand how to use modern technology and social media in living the question, “How can I reach more people with the love of Christ?

As I told our youth several times, the gravity of social media is self-centeredness if we’re looking to it for affirmation; however, if we choose to exude confidence in who we are in Christ, we allow social media to be the encouragement tool it was meant to be.

2) Don’t take peoples’ prolonged absences personally

If you’ve been in ministry long enough, you’ve probably noticed some families checking out for extended periods with little to no communication. Naturally, when this happens, our first instinct is to wonder why; however, as hard as it may be, it’s critical we not take their absences personally.

For one thing, just because you’re a minister doesn’t mean you’re entitled to know every intimate detail of a person’s life. Furthermore, church commitment can’t always be measured in attendance. The reality is life gets crazy and for some, a breather from church can be of benefit.

I remember during my second year as youth pastor when a family disappeared for months without any heads up. Without any leads or intel, the head-scratching was real. “What triggered this? Did something happen? What can be done,” I often thought.

However, after a get-real prayer time with God, it hit me: my role was not to maintain them, but to sustain them…not to keep them in church, but en-couraged!

You see, up until that point, I had been interpreting withdrawal as a function of ego…as if someone else’s distance was my fault; however…

…once I surrendered the right to fully understand outside situations, only then was I able to find the balance between letting go and reaching out.

3) Integrate youth leaders into communication

No question, one of the most exhausting tasks of any youth pastor is getting everyone on the same page. I’m sure many of you at some point have wondered, “Even when I communicate face to face, I have to repeat myself over and over again!”

However, as frustrating the struggle may be, when we filter this challenge through the question, “How can I reach more people with the love of Christ”, we discover how empowering youth to connect with peers can improve communication.

I recall a youth leadership meeting during which my student leaders discussed this issue having realized the need for a better internal and external communication process. As they decided, for the internal process, each youth leader would receive a monthly contact list of sick, struggling, or frequently absent youth to text or call. Likewise, with the external process, each youth leader would invite a friend at school (or outside the leadership core) into the promotion of community events. In this way, not only could adult leaders focus more on parental/professional communication, but also youth could share in the responsibility while fortifying relational bridges as disciple-makers.

One of my favorite examples of this took place when our youth teamed up with the children’s ministry in a recent vacation Bible school promotion outreach. At first, all participants met at the church to pray and inquire of the Lord where to go and who to target. Then, after reaching a spiritual consensus, we broke into groups dispersing into different parts of the city from nearby apartment complexes to local businesses, strip malls, and parks.

From a PR and publicity perspective, the outreach was a huge success resulting in the most attended VBS in our church’s history; however, for our youth, no question bonding with younger peers while recognizing their value in community service left the greatest impressions.

4) Don’t stress about relationships

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It’s inevitable. At some point, boy meets girl, boy asks girl out, and before you know it…bam! You have a dating relationship along with endless gossip fodder on your hands. As some of you can attest, the stewardship of purity can be a hard road to navigate from anxious parents and their content expectations to distracted youth and their thirst for acceptance.

Yet, it’s in these circumstances we must remember our role is not to parent but to partner with parents in extending their standards. As you’ll inevitably find, not only will this establish trust between pastor and parent, but also empower the parent to love as Jesus loves and the youth to love what Jesus loves. Not to mention the door will be opened for healthy dialogue to take place regularly.

For instance, during my third year as youth pastor, one of my youth worship leaders started a dating relationship with a fellow youth leader. At first, I felt zero qualms about the development, but gradually, I noticed an uptick in PDA and subsequently, my discomfort in how it could potentially translate. Eventually, a youth parent called me up asking why I wasn’t doing anything to ‘snuff the flame’ out. In response, I told him my responsibility wasn’t to parent, but rather invite the parents involved into the conversation of helping these youth live above reproach.

As it turned out, after discussing the matter with the appropriate parties, each side came away with a better scriptural understanding of what stewarding physical affection looks like.

5) It’s not about quantity, but quality

How many of you have ever been asked “How big is your youth group”? Probably a number of times, right?

Yet, while the question may seem shallow, we must remember:

  • Faithfulness is not a function of church size.
  • The purpose of church is commissioning community1, not boasting numbers.

If you ask me, I’d rather have 10 passionate youth who understand the Spirit-led life, versus 50 youth looking to be entertained on their weekly pit stop.

After all, pastoring youth is all about cultivating a Gospel-driven culture, not an agenda-driven ministry2.

Selah.

Footnotes

1) Specifically, community extending the territory of God’s presence

2) Cultivating a place where God’s presence can be known (i.e. demonstrating heaven on earth) is our purpose. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to elevate any pursuit above serving the body in a way the Kingdom is expressed.

Photo credits: whoworship.com, cbbc.com, chastity.com

Staying the Course – The Importance of Not Quitting: Part 1

I’m going to be quite frank: I’m not a fan of my day job.

I mean…don’t get me wrong. I take great pride in being bivocational, serving as a full-time volunteer youth pastor with a permanent governmental position on the side.

But on some days, I’m telling you…I seriously consider buying some “Just for Men” products just to combat premature greyness potential.

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After all, it’s hard to stay engaged at work when you sense your passion bucket is drying up…when the only thing keeping your midday heart afloat is a splintered desire for excellence.

‘Cause truth is: Sometimes, it’s easy to want to quit…to unplug and refresh, especially when you feel you’re heart and résumé are headed in opposite directions.

However, when we soak in the Word and rest in the arms of Christ, we can find value in steadfast persistence, even when our circumstances don’t make sense. Yes, we may be burning for a reset compass to the tune of 90°, maybe 180°, but this doesn’t have to compromise our faith in staying the course.

Think about the ministry of Christ…

Whenever Jesus encountered a difficult situation, what’s the first thing he did? He yielded. He relinquished his prerogative and instead, referenced the Father so he could be filled with wisdom and understanding.

In other words, Jesus lived what God said…because he saw his life as a pure reflection of the Father’s heart and continually established the hope of glory as his vanguard.

Thus, the more Jesus yielded, the more supernatural strength he received, which in turn, helped him not only stand firm in the midst of trials, but also live a lifestyle of perpetual obedience.

Essentially, when we discern the ministry of Jesus, we see how holy surrender is the best way to never give up.

But maybe you’re still scratching your head, wondering how this relates to the humble workingman stuck in cubicle country. I mean…it’s not like these factoids can ease the burden of two rush hour commutes a day or the patronizing, unprofessionally filtered dialogue ponging up the airwaves and hallways…

or can it?

You see, studying the nature and ministry of Christ not only inspires us to live a life worthy of the calling set before us (Ephesians 4:1), but also compels us to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24-26). Without it, there’s no way we can expect our natural perspective to calibrate to where it needs to be.

And yet, on the flipside, I understand the profile of the unfulfilled employee whose frustration mounts whenever a co-worker is promoted out of bias or when another is  intentionally disregarded.

However, whenever I feel suffocated or ignored by a colleague, I remember the attitude Christ had whenever he encountered animosity.

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And suddenly, my crap doesn’t feel so…crappy anymore.

True, I may be tempted to vent steam in the face of what feels like discriminate functionality. But glory to God if I’m hard-pressed. Glory to God if I feel abandoned…if I’m stuck in a jam and the only way out is reliance upon His unfailing masterheart.

Bottom line: You may find yourself in a bland situation, feeling like you’re filing your creativity away …or stuck between provisional responsibility and a dream pursuit.

But whether you feel pinned under overwhelming pressure or hardened by lifelessness, the point is: Don’t quit…but stay the course!

Remember each season of your life is a stepping stone in the direction of the unfathomable calling God has for you. So don’t believe the lie that God doesn’t care about the job you do…or that everything has to make sense in order to embrace the opportunity in front of you.

Instead, press in, press through and put yourself in a position to hear God’s heart and voice, so when you hear His call, you won’t hesitate to obey even if you don’t fully understand the answer. For God always sees the ultimate goal and nothing is impossible with him (Luke 1:37). After all, He not only sees the light at the end of the tunnel – He is the light.

Let’s pray…

God, we want to be difference makers at our jobs, even though it may seem most of the people we work with tick the living shrek out of us. God, we want to love what’s hard, not just what’s easy. We don’t want to give up and surrender the chance we have to be light in the darkness. We may not be a fan of what we do. We may not see how this pertains to our calling. But by faith, we’re going to believe there’s a purpose behind the position you’ve blessed us with. We don’t have to see it to believe it and we don’t have to like it to live it. At the end of the day, we’re going to be obedient. And we trust that you’ll create and develop in us a stronger desire to selflessly serve while standing tall in adversity. It’s not about us. It’s all about you. So take this numb heart and breathe life back into it so we may be able to give life back to others. Amen!”