Sunday, January 15, 2017

Three Benefits of an Annual Sermon Plan

As a young pastor I had the incredible benefit of having a mentor who taught me the benefits of sermon planning. Until that point, I did what many pastors do: wait until Monday to think about what to preach on the next Sunday. Not only did that lead to tremendous stress every Monday, but it also resulted in my sense that the overall teaching plan of the church was disjointed. I began using an annual sermon plan 18 years ago and have found at least three practical benefits for me and to my congregation.

1. Relieves Stress
Alistair Begg once described preaching as akin to giving birth. His point was not to denigrate the real physical and emotional toll that women face in childbirth, but that the emotional (and sometimes physical) toll on a preacher is absolutely draining as he shares from God’s Word the truths that have come out of the study. It is hard to describe the process of returning to the study the day after preaching knowing that it all begins again. Now, frankly, there is nothing – nothing – that eliminates the stress of a pastor knowing he has to prepare a message from God’s Word for God’s people. Nothing. But, the lack of an annual sermon plan does add to that stress by the pastor not only having to prepare the message, but he also has to spend time in prayer and reflection to determine what to preach that week. Going through such a routine every week is emotionally and spiritually exhausting.

The simple truth is that God can lead us in planning several months in advance just as well as he can on a weekly basis. By planning in advance, however, the pastor can help alleviate a bit of the stress associated with preparing that week’s sermon.

2. Whole Team On Board
A second value of annual sermon planning is that it allows the pastor to bring his entire team on board. When I served in a small church, that “whole team” was my secretary and a music leader. Now, that team includes a few associate pastors, ministry directors and administrative assistants. The issue is not how many people the team involves, what does matter is that you are able to share with key ministry leadership the direction that the preaching will be taking. In my case, my annual sermon plan is in the form of a spreadsheet that includes date, series title, sermon title, passage, main idea of sermon, and any special notes (i.e. holiday weekend, etc). Once the whole staff has this info, they have a better idea of weekly themes and of sermon series themes that will be coming over the course of the year.

A quick note at this point: you may have noticed that “main idea of sermon” is included with the plan I use. Usually that means a pastor needs to take a day or two away to develop the annual sermon plan. In the early years, I took two days to work through a full 12 month plan. Because I have gotten in a “rhythm” of planning, I now spend time in the fall planning for January through June and in the spring planning July through December.

3. An Annual Preaching Record
The final benefit I have found to having an annual sermon plan is the ability to go back and review sermon themes from previous years. It also allows me to evaluate total number of Sundays I have been in the pulpit. In my case, I have found that I need to have one week out of the pulpit every quarter to clear my head a bit. Because I have kept an annual sermon plan for 18 years, I can point back to exactly how many Sundays I have been in the pulpit every year. For example, I know that in my earlier years, I was in the pulpit an average of 49 Sundays per year. Frankly, that is way too much. Over the past 10 years, I have averaged 44.5 Sundays per year. That number is much more manageable.

I’ve been fortunate that the two previous churches I have served have set 42 as the minimum and 46 as the maximum number of days that the pastor is expected to be in the pulpit. This is a very wise approach, especially because those churches did not offer a sabbatical. In those ministry settings, the church did not offer a sabbatical, so I made sure to utilize vacation time in the summer as a mini-sabbatical (2 to 3 Sundays in a row, including one holiday Sunday). Regardless of your setting, an annual sermon plan allows a pastor to know exactly how many Sundays he has been in the pulpit and to share that with church leadership.

After 18 years of using an annual sermon plan, I have found these three benefits to outweigh any extra work in the preparation of the annual sermon plan. If you use an annual sermon plan, what additional benefits have you found?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Few More Things I Wish I Had Known As a Young Pastor

In February 2013 I wrote a short article entitled “To the Young Pastor: Five Things I Wish I Had Known.” Four years later I think it may be time to add a few to the list. For, it seems, we never stop learning how to do this thing we call “pastoral ministry.” We never stop experiencing surprise at the way God uses us to impact the lives of people or the way in which we can be hurt by people. All of that to say, “Hey, young pastor, here are a few more things you need to know.”

1. You are Pastoring an Established Church.
When I was young(er) I used to think that I wanted to lead a hip, modern, contemporary church that was always thriving on innovation and change. Note: That church does not exist. The reality is, unless you are making major, foundational, fundamental changes to the church you lead every 12 to 18 months, you will lead an established church. (BTW, very few people can make those kinds of fundamental changes and not lose most of the congregation along the way.) Don’t let the fact that the church has a cool band or doesn’t ask that you wear a suit lead you to believe they are not “established.” They are. All churches are. All churches have systems, structures, traditions, and expectations. Learn them; and then leverage them to bring positive transformation. Once I embraced this reality, I have experienced far more joy and satisfaction in ministry and much better results in leading change.

2. You Cannot Lead People Well Until You Love Them Well.
A good friend of mine once told me, “I need to see your heart.” The comment came in the midst of a contentious conversation about leadership. He was pointing out come shortcomings and I was getting defensive. He rightly identified the problem: I was not loving people deeply. Somewhere I had picked up the notion that if you lead people well, that will result in a loving relationship. I’ve come to believe that you have to love people before you can lead them. And, not only love them, but love them visibly. They have to see your heart. Naturally, that comes with great risk that they can break your heart. But, the risk is worth the reward.

3. It’s the Body Shots that Will Do You In.
We have all heard the statistics about pastors leaving the ministry. Though many of these are inflated, the truth is that many pastors do leave the ministry. We tend to be most aware of the ones who do so via the “knockout punch” of a disqualifying moral failure. I’m convinced, however, that the vast majority of pastors leave the ministry due to a relentless number of “body blows.” There is an old adage in boxing, “kill the body and the head dies.” The idea is that you “soften” someone up for a knockout punch by pummeling their body. In ministry, that pummeling comes via unrealistic expectations, unfair criticism, and snide remarks. Even when serving in a church where everything seems to be going well, these body blows can take their toll on you, whether they occur during your ministry or after you leave. Be prepared for it and learn to not only “keep your left up” (protect against the knockout punch), but steel yourself for the body shots.


What other lessons might you add to help a young pastor in ministry? 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Some Thoughts on the 2016 Election

I have a confession to make: I am a political nerd. I have been interested in politics since the 1984 election, well before I was able to vote. In 1988 I voted in my first election and I have voted in every election – local and nation – since that time. Yet, this is the first election that I have been tempted to sit out. Tempted to sit out, but not persuaded to do so.

This election cycle has been unlike anything we have seen in recent history. Faithful followers of Christ are not overly excited about either of the two major candidates. We want some answers. We want direction. We want guidance. More than any other election in the past, I’ve been asked, “what do you think of this election, pastor? What are we going to do?”

Two tings I have heard most often are: “vote your conscience” or “we have to choose between the lesser of two evils.” But, these sentiments do not provide the guidance they purport. For example, voting your conscience only makes sense if your conscience is guided by biblical principles. After all, your conscience could be guided be seared by a win-at-all-costs ideology, or a flat our hatred for the “other” candidate. In that case, “voting your conscience” is not as wise as it seems.

While some have argued that when we vote we always, to some degree, choose between the lesser of two evils. While there is an element of truth in that sentiment, it only makes sense as a voting rationale if there is an appreciable difference between the two evils. Apart from that, it is merely a way to excuse voting for someone that you would never vote for otherwise.

While I have no easy answers for this year’s Presidential election, I would like to make a few suggestions. A number of years ago - and in no small part due to the influence of Francis Schaeffer, Russell Moore, and others - I developed a three principle method of evaluating candidates. I provide it here in hopes it may help you as you enter the voting booth this year.

The Declaration of Independence declares: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It seems to me that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” provides a good three principle framework for evaluating candidates. So, here is how I think about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the context of the policies supported by the candidates.

1. PRO LIFE
There is no right more fundamental than the right to life. Every person who advocates a pro-choice position does so only because their own mother chose life. Think about that for a minute. I recognize there are difficult situations people find themselves in and circumstances that are often less than ideal for a pregnancy. Yet, none of those situations or circumstances justify the killing of an innocent child.

Mother Teresa once said, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child... A direct killing of the innocent child, 'Murder' by the mother herself... And if we can accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?" And, she got to the heart of the matter - the real reason our culture advocates abortion - when she said, "It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish."

Therefore, when I vote, the first principle that guides me is whether a candidate is pro-life. This, in my estimation, is the most practical way to ensure that every person's right to LIFE is protected.

2. PRO LIBERTY (Pro 2nd Amendment)
To some people this seems to contradict the first principle. But, it does not. The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution reads: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The Founding Fathers had experienced the tyranny of King George and had openly rebelled against that tyranny. They were able to do so because they were armed. In their day a militia was a group of ordinary citizens who formed to defend an area or region. It was a precursor to the present day military. Yet, the right to keep and bear arms was not inextricably tied to the idea of the military, as some presume today. Rather, the right of citizens to rebel against tyrannical government necessitates those citizens posses the right to keep and bear arms.

The Declaration of Independence says we are endowed by our Creator with the right to LIBERTY. The way we ensure our liberty is protected is not by trusting that the government will take care of protecting it for us. Rather, each individual has the right to protect their liberty on their own. So, the second principle that guides me is whether a candidate supports the 2nd amendment. Once again, there is significant difference in the candidates.

3. PRO LIMITED GOVERNMENT
The third principle that guides my voting decisions is whether a candidate favors limited government and lower taxes. This principle comes out of the Declaration as well. We are endowed by our Creator with the right to the pursuit of happiness. It is difficult to pursue happiness if the government continually takes more and more of your income.

Let me add that we should extend grace to one another, whatever conclusions we may reach about this election cycle. Even with the three principles that I utilize, the only certain thing for me, personally, is that I cannot vote for Sec. Clinton, Mr. Johnson, or Dr. Stein. Mr. Trump meets my policy criteria (though his pro-life views have been a fairly recent development and I am not convinced of his advocacy for limited government), but his megalomania, lack of a moral compass, and weakness on religious liberty give me serious pause. Indeed, of the five major candidates for President, Evan McMullin is the only candidate that meets all of the policy criteria shared above and seems to be a person of high integrity and character. (This comment should not be construed as an endorsement. I do not make it a practice to endorse candidates.) While you may come to a different conclusion on the candidates than I do, again, I encourage us to treat one another with grace during this very unusual and difficult election cycle.

Friday, April 1, 2016

LOVED: Birthday Reflections for My Mother

April 1st is my mother’s birthday. Every year, it seems, I wonder what I should get for her. Sometime in March, I usually resolve to get her a card, but that seems a bit cheap. Then I think that maybe I’ll put a check in the card, but that seems really tacky. But, like most sons, I end up simply making a phone call. Mom always seems glad to hear from me on her birthday, but I tend to feel like, well, a bum, for only making a phone call. Today I decided to put in writing, for the world to observe, some reflections about my mother. My goal is simple: to honor a woman who has done more for me than I could ever begin to describe, let alone adequately repay.

L – Life – I know it is clich├ęd, but my mother gave me life. Certainly I mean in the physical sense. She carried me, gave birth to me, cared for me and raised me. But, I mean more than that when I say she gave me life. She gave me a thirst for life by her own openness to trying and doing new things. She took motorcycle trips with my dad when they were a bit younger. She went camping, water skiing, and on fishing trips. She once took my sisters and I to “the hill” on the back of our farm for a picnic….of course, the hibachi grill she brought to cook lunch ended up starting a grass fire! But, even then, we fought the fire together. Needless to say, my mother gave me a thirst to experience life in all its fullness, and for that I am forever grateful.

O – Optimism – In our day of DINK (Double Income, No Kids) households, it may be hard for some to imagine clothing and feed a family of five on a (lower) middle class income. But, that is precisely what my mother did. And she did so with tremendous optimism. By observing her interactions with my dad (and some of his wild eyed plans), she taught me to approach life with optimism. Though we often chided her for saying, “The timing is just not right” when we wanted to make a purchase, the truth is that my mother also believes in “giving it a shot, because things will work out.”

V – Values – We learn a lot from our parents directly, to be sure. But, I learned many values from observing my mother. I learned the value of hard work, the joy of doing a job the right way, and the simple pleasure of sipping a cup of coffee on the back porch.  She was (is) a meticulous trim painter, who spent countless hours on a ladder helping my dad doing odd jobs. She got up early and often stayed up late. She often described herself as “scrubby Dutch.” I am not exactly sure what that means but I know she would say it when she had us helping her do some cleaning and my sisters and I were not exactly meeting her standards.

E – Encouragement – My mother has been a great encourager to me. She always has been. Often that has taken the form of optimistically encouraging me to pursue my dreams and goals. Other times her encouragement was a bit more….blunt. I recall her standing at the door to my bedroom on more mornings than I can count quoting from Proverbs 6. She seemed to take particular delight in verse 9: “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?” Truth be told, I cannot recall a single time my mother telling me that I would fail or that I was a failure. She was – and is – a constant source of encouragement, for which I am forever grateful.

D – Desire – Finally, my mother gave me a desire to know God. Specifically, to know who God is for us in Christ and to know His Word. Again, she did not teach that by telling me I should be reading the bible more or by chiding me toward greater Christlikeness. Rather, I saw her sitting at the kitchen table – nearly every day – with her bible open and a cup of steaming coffee next to it had a cumulative effect of my wanting to know the God that she knew. For that, I am eternally grateful.

So, on the occasion of my mother’s birthday I want her to know that she is LOVED….and that I am so grateful that she first LOVED me.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

You Did What?!? Why I Did the Unthinkable and Lived to Tell About It

Last week a friend called me and started the conversation by saying, “What are you doing?” When I asked him what he meant he said that he saw on social media that I had announced that I had accepted a call to serve at church in a neighboring state. He was trying to understand how I could let my current church find out something so important via social media. At that point I said, “They already knew I was preaching in view of a call. I told them last week.” At which point he said, “You did what?!?” I told him I told them the week before because I loved them and trusted them and coveted their prayers. And, though surprised, they were glad that I trusted and loved them enough to want them to be a part of such an important process. It has not always been that way.

In January of 1990, I was called to serve my very first church as a pastor. It was a part-time role while I was finishing out my college education. But, from that day until now, over twenty-five years later, one thing has remained a constant: pastors do not alert their congregations that they are considering a call to another church before they have actually accepted that call. One on hand, it makes perfect sense. After all, most employees would never walk into their boss’s office and announce they are considering making a change to another company. Doing so would almost certainly earn them an escort out of the building.

I have only made a handful of ministry moves, but in every case, I did not tell the church I was serving until after I had accepted a call to a new place. I did not really care for doing it that way, but I had been warned by many older, more experienced pastors that one could not let the people in your current place of service know you were considering another call. I would like to suggest three reasons why that is no longer true and why it is preferable to bring your church into the process. Plus, I’ll provide one prerequisite that must be true before you attempt to do this.

1. Prayer
Considering moving from one congregation to another is a gut-wrenching decision for any pastor. It is always difficult for the congregation the pastor is leaving. The one thing that a pastor and his congregation need is clarity from the Lord. How better to receive that clarity that through prayer. One of the great joys I received during the week leading up to preaching in view of a call at another church were the texts, emails and Facebook messages from our members letting me know that they were praying for me and for the process. What a tremendous encouragement to me and an opportunity for God to prepare their hearts for the future.

2. Social Media
The way in which we discover the “news” of the day has forever been changed by the reality of social media. According to the most recent numbers, over 3 billion people have internet access, of which, just over 2 billion have active social media accounts. Facebook alone boasts of 1.4 billion unique accounts, meaning that 47% of all people with access to the internet have a Facebook account. Practically, that means that when a pastor preaches at a church in view of a call and accepts a call from that congregation, many of the people in the new church will desire to share that news and connect with the new pastor via social media. Unless one’s current church is aware of what is happening, a communications disaster could occur.

3. Sermon Audio and Video
In days gone by, often the first time a church heard a prospective pastor preach was on the Sunday he was preaching in view of a call. I am not sure anyone wants their body of work to be evaluated with their “performance” on one day. Today many churches post audio and /or video of sermons on their website or via social media outlets. By pre-announcing that I was going to preach in view of a call, the prospective congregation to share my name and details with their church so they could hear (and see) a large number of sermons. The result? The prospective church had a better idea of what my ministry looked (and sounded) like on a weekly basis. Thus, they were better prepared to search their hearts as to whether God would use them to call me to their church.

Having given three good reasons why you should consider pre-announcing that you are considering a call elsewhere, let me be clear that it is always risky. I was fortunate to be able to consult with our key church leaders and get their input before making the decision to pre-announce. It was at their urging that I did so, though they all admitted they had never heard of anyone doing so before. We all recognized that pre-announcing could backfire and undermine your ministry at your current place, particularly if you are not called away.

For that reason, let me offer one vital prerequisite. From your first day of ministry where you are, you must build love and trust between you and the people in your church. When my friend asked why I would tell our church ahead of time, I responded, “Because I love and trust them and they love and trust me.” That does not change the pain of making a transition or the sorrow of saying good-bye to dear friends, but it does speak deeply about the relationship that has been built and the health of the church situation you may be considering leaving.

Again, I am aware that this approach may not be possible for every pastor or every church situation. But, at the urging of some of our key leaders, I wanted to share why we took the approach that we did. I hope it is helpful. I would love your feedback.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pochek Family Update

Church Family and Friends,
Last week we shared that we would be at First Baptist Church of Charlottesville on Park Street (www.fbcparkstreet.com) preaching in view of a call on Sunday, February 28. (Well, technically, I was preaching in view of a call, but we had the whole Pochek crew with us!)

As you likely know by now, the church voted overwhelmingly to call us - 396 yes to 11 no - 97.3% according to the math gurus. Our prayer during this process has been that God would make this ministry call unmistakable. We wanted that for our peace of mind, for the peace of mind of our dear church family at Raleigh Road, for the peace of mind of the leadership and staff at FBC Park Street, and for anyone else connected to this process. God spoke clearly and unmistakably through his people yesterday. For that, we are thankful.

We also know that times like these leave a lot of questions. So, I want to take just a quick minute to address a few of them:

1. Is something wrong at RRBC that is causing you to leave?
NO. Emphatically, NO! God is doing a great work in our midst. Sometimes he calls a servant to a place and a people for a season and then moves them to another place to make room for what he has "next" for everyone. RRBC is a great church with a great future and, in many ways, I envy the next pastor. :-)

2. How long will you be at RRBC (in Wilson)?
Well....we don't know exactly. There are many details to work through with our Overseers and with the leadership at FBC Park Street before I can give you definite dates. Having said that, our plan is to be in Wilson and leading RRBC through at least the end of March. We have much to consider - selling our house (know anyone looking for a great house?), getting a place in Charlottesville lined up, etc. We'll keep you updated as we know more.

3. What will happen at RRBC?
The church will continue! This church has never been about one person - whether that was Pastor Eddy or myself (the only two lead Pastors we've had!), or any other staff member or member. In the near term, the Overseers will be working to line up an Interim Pastor who will handle preaching duties on a regular basis. The Overseers are committed to making sure the pulpit ministry at RRBC remains strong, biblical, and winsome. In addition, our By-Laws lay out the plan for developing a Pastor Search Committee to locate and extend a call to the next Senior Pastor.

Thanks for taking the time to pray for us and for all of your kindness. As we transition to Charlottesville, we will be leaving behind a piece of our hearts in Wilson (as well as our son Dave!). We've had deeper friendships here than anywhere we've ever been. In addition, the people at RRBC have made me a far better pastor than what I was when I arrived. You have sharpened me, strengthened me, and shaped me in unbelievable ways. I am humbled, thankful and honored to have served with you these nearly seven years.

Until I have more to share....

Pastor Rob




Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Prayer Request from Pastor Rob and Susy

Friends and Church Family,

Although I shared this at Raleigh Road Baptist Church following morning worship, I wanted to share it here for those who were not in attendance.

Beginning in the late summer / early fall of 2014, we have had contact with a number of churches, denominational agencies, and even schools about roles that would move us from here at Raleigh Road. One of those churches was a fairly large church located about 30 minutes from my parents. Other opportunities were here in NC, SC and a variety of other places. In every case, we prayed, sought the counsel of trusted friends, and decided to continue to serve right here.

On December 3rd, 2015 I was contacted by the search committee at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, VA (www.fbcparkstreet.com) in connection with their search for a Senior Pastor. I had done some research on the church to determine my level of interest. I found the church had a rich history of strong biblical preaching, church planting, and significant missions involvement. So, I proceeded in having conversations with their search committee during December and January.

During that time I kept Franklin Witter – our Personnel Chair and an Overseer – in the loop as to what was taking place. In late January, Susy and I visited Charlottesville to formally interview with the Pastor Search Committee at First Baptist Charlottesville. At that point, I notified the entire Overseer body as well as Pastor Joe and Bill about what was taking place.

After our weekend in Charlottesville, their committee asked us to come back on Sunday, February 28th to preach in view of a call, which we agreed to do. After several thoughtful discussions with the Overseers, we concluded that it would be best for as few as people to be aware of what was happening until today. Here at Raleigh Road, we have built a culture of transparency in all things. That is why I am taking the unusual step of sharing this with you. Very few pastors would dare to inform their churches of something like this ahead of time, but we are not most churches. We have sought to create a culture here in which it is “normal” for me, as your pastor, to want you to pray for this situation.

We also want you to know that this has not been an easy process. Susy and I have agonized over it, prayed over it, sought the counsel of others over it, and have had many long talks with each other about it. We love this church. We love you. Engaging in this process has not changed that and could never change it. We need you in this process. We need your prayers.

At the outset of this announcement, I shared other opportunities that have presented themselves to us so you understand that we are not desperately looking to leave RRBC. If we were, we have had several opportunities to do so over the past 18 months. We do want to desperately pursue God’s call on our lives, whether that is here or there, or wherever the Lord may lead.

I know some of you will be surprised by this announcement. Some may be disappointed. Some may be worried. And others may even be angry. I understand those emotions. But, I would encourage you to turn all of those emotions toward one thing: depending on God for the future. And, let us be mindful of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Cor 3:5).

We would ask you to pray that God would make his will unmistakably clear in this process. If that is for us to go to FBC Charlottesville to serve as their next Senior Pastor, we will rejoice in that. If God chooses to use us in a different way for FBC Charlottesville and to remain at RRBC as your Senior Pastor, we will rejoice as well!

We covet your prayers and we will share the outcome of the vote at FBC Charlottesville via my Facebook page on Sunday, February 28th.