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Plumb Lines for Ministry

(Except for some minor revisions, this article first appeared in Common Call Magazine, published by the Baptist Standard.)

When Six Flags Over Texas started its second season in 1962, one of the most popular attractions was “Casa Magnetica,” also known as “The Crooked House.” It was so popular, it remained active longer than most attractions at the theme park and reopened for the 60th anniversary of the park last year. The house was really one big illusion with many applications. It was built on an extreme angle so when people toured the house, everything acted strangely, as though gravity had been twisted. A broom appeared to stand straight up on its own. Fruit would roll up a table and out a window. A chain seemed to hang at an odd angle. The entire experience was based on the confusion caused when people lose their perspective, because the house is not level and square.

Since your church or organization is made of diverse people with different priorities and varied backgrounds, it quickly can become a place of confusion or even conflict. You might expect things to roll in one direction but be surprised when they seem to go uphill or backward. The church can at times function somewhat like Casa Magnetica. The people’s perspective is skewed, or confused because the house is not square.

For thousands of years, builders have relied on the plumb line to keep everything straight and square. The plumb line consists of a weight attached to the end of a long string. That weight (plumb bob) usually is pointed on the end, and it pulls the string straight and true. Once the plumb line stops swaying, the builder knows that he has a straight, vertical line. Using a series of plumb lines, he can build a level and square structure.

If you structure your church or organization with a series of plumb lines that define who you are, you can avoid much of the confusion that comes from a lack of perspective. Choose a handful of plumb lines that define your priorities and purpose. Then build your calendar, budget and committees off those plumb lines. Ideas that do not line up with those plumb lines are not adopted. Money and resources are not spent on projects that fail to “line up.” As the people you lead become familiar with the plumb lines, they gain a sense of meaning that can only be found in a shared purpose. They also experience a healthy balance of comfort and challenge since they have the true perspective on what the church or organization is all about.

For example, First Baptist Church of West is structured around five plumb lines. We build everything we do from one or more of these:

1. God deserves our best. We serve an awesome God who is worthy of the very best we have to offer. Settling for the easiest thing or the most convenient way is not enough. God deserves only our best efforts.

2. We need to focus on church health instead of church growth. The church is more of an organism than it is an organization. Since it is the body of Christ, we must do all we can to make sure it is healthy. When the church is healthy, growth will happen, but growth alone cannot be our goal.

3. We do church best when we do it in small groups. Corporate worship is vital to the life of the church and the life of the believer. However, we learn, grow and serve most effectively in small groups.

4. Worship is about what we do for God, not what the church does for us. Corporate worship is not primarily about what you can “get out of it.” It is not about the kind of music you like the best. Real worship is about God’s people giving God glory through sacrifices of praise. It is about God, not us.

5. The local church should have a positive impact on its community. We are to be salt and light to the community in which God has placed us. The church should be actively involved in the community and should work to make its community a better place for all its neighbors.

While plumb lines still are occasionally used by builders, lasers usually do the work of creating level and straight lines now. Those lasers must be periodically recalibrated, and they depend on batteries that must be charged. They are accurate, as long as they are maintained appropriately. Plumb lines require very little maintenance, because they depend almost entirely on the unchanging laws of physics. One significant difference between the modern laser and the classic plumb line is the time involved establishing the straight line. Lasers show that line immediately upon being powered up. Plumb lines are reliably straight and true once the plum bob stops swaying. That means you have to wait a little while and watch it carefully.

That is how you want to prepare your plumb lines with your church or organization, as well. Do not rush to make a list of priorities based on trends or in reaction to recent events. Take your time to understand your organization, your setting, your people and your purpose. As you invest that time in watching, praying and preparing, the plumb lines will become clear. Once you have discovered them, let them guide you as you build a church or organization that is true to its purpose and square with its priorities.


One of the life skills I am trying to learn is INTENTIONALITY. Instead of hoping a friendship will develop, I have to take steps to create friendship. Instead of waiting for a particular group to make me feel accepted, I have to make connections and build bridges. Instead of waiting to forget my failures, I have to learn from them and work at improvement. Instead of waiting to “feel like” doing something that needs to be done, I have to start doing it and hope the feelings will follow. Instead of waiting for God to speak to me or move me in some way, I have to worship and serve Him because He is worthy of the best I have to offer Him.

I think a lot of us would feel much better about our lives if we stopped waiting for others to do something for us, and accepted responsibility for our own happiness. I intend to be more intentional!

A Rational Response to a Perceived Attack

Our men’s ministry group took a road trip to Hico, TX where we found the “Mini-Tank Battlefield.” Each of us got our own personal “mini-tank.” It functioned much like a real tank except it had room for only one person and its only arsenal was a paintball gun. Excited about spending the day with my friends and thoroughly enjoying such a unique experience, I drove my mini-tank down a little trail through the woods. As I entered a clearing I was immediately met with a relentless barrage of paint pellets that quickly transformed my green tank into a multicolored vehicle of shame, and it’s driver into a bruised and battered defeated warrior.

Every seasoned leader has had a similar experience. Most leaders have been through the surprise attack scenario more than once. Ministers and church lay-leaders are not exempt. Unexpected confrontations can happen in the hallways of a church just as easily as they can on a mini-tank paintball course. When someone confronts a leader with criticism or accusations, the attacker has the advantage of surprise. Before addressing the leader, he has had the opportunity to plan his course of action, choose his words, and perhaps even recruit his allies. The leader, however, is not given the opportunity to prepare, but will most likely be held accountable for her response. To avoid making things worse with our own emotional reactions, leaders need a rational way to process a perceived attack and determine how to respond. 

One approach that has proven helpful is to internally ask two questions. First, the leader should not settle for anything less than an honest answer to the hard question, “Is the person right?” When we feel like we are under attack, our defenses go up and we reject anything that seems like it might cause pain. When we are in that mode, however, we might miss out on a valuable opportunity for personal growth. Maybe there is some validity to the observations that are being expressed by the other person. Perhaps they can help us see something about ourselves or our organization that we might have missed without the benefit of their perspective. It is also quite possible, however, that what they are saying is not right. We must not automatically assume that because they are upset, they must be right. We need to wrestle with the question and be willing to determine the answer to the best of our ability.

The second question should be considered independently of the first. Setting aside our evaluation of the validity of the words, we need to consider the manner in which the words were spoken or written. We must ask, “Is the person being reasonable?” Regardless of how we answered the first question, we now must look how they are treating us and whether or not their behavior is reasonable. If they are remaining calm, staying focused, and being fair in their choice of words, our response should be different than it will be if they are being hurtful, unfair, or overly dramatic. 

“Is the person right?” “Is the person being reasonable?” The key to a rational response is identifying how our answers to the two questions work together. The two questions help us separate and process very different issues. Once we have adequately settled those issues, we can see how they relate to one another and we can determine our response. (Alliteration helps here: my Rational Response is based on whether the person is Right and Reasonable.)

1. If the person is right and she is being reasonable, I need to give that person my full attention. We may set up a time to discuss her concerns later so I can adequately consider them, but I should let the person know she is being heard.

2. If the person is right, but he is not being reasonable about it, I am faced with a personal challenge. I should seriously weigh the content of the message without allowing the person to hurt my feelings or control me with his misbehavior. 

3. If the person is not right, but she is being reasonable, I need to listen attentively and respond patiently in hopes that I can help clarify her misunderstanding.

4. If the person is not right and he is not being reasonable, I need to protect myself, and more importantly, I need to protect the church or organization that I lead. I cannot do that by being bullied, nor can I do that by giving in to the temptation to join him in his misbehavior. I need to deescalate the situation and walk away from it. Later, with wise counsel, I can determine next steps if there need to be any.

This is too much to think about in the heat of the moment. That is precisely why we need to make sure we have learned the process before we need it. The more we think about it beforehand and the more we practice it, the more natural it will become.

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1

My Ministry Began with Two Words

My ministry began with two words, “Ted’s dead.”

I was a young college student and had just started my first church staff position. My title was “Youth Minister,” but to that point there had been very little ministry taking place. It was more like a part-time job. I was getting to the know the students and learning how to handle a budget, lead Bible studies, and play some games. I was handling my job, but what I was doing could not really be called “ministry.”

I do not remember how I heard about Ted’s accident. It happened over a decade before cell phones or email were available, and close to two decades before I personally had access to that kind of technology. Somehow, in between classes, I got word that one of “my kids” had been in a motorcycle accident. Assuming he was in a hospital somewhere, I quickly drove to the church. I found the pastor in the church office and asked, “How’s Ted?” I asked that question over 35 years ago, and I can still see the pastor’s face and hear him say those two words, “Ted’s dead.” I did not see that coming. I was naïve, immature, and completely out of my league. I had no idea what to do next.

When it was time for our youth group to meet, I did not pretend to know what to say. I just let the students talk. Ted was a popular senior and most of the kids in my group went to his high school. It was easy for them to talk about him and to share their grief with one another. I just monitored the meeting and let them take care of one another. I learned a lot that night and in the days that followed. My part-time job became a ministry and I never again thought of what I do as just a way to make a living. Over these many years I have received similar news countless times. It has rarely been as abrupt and shocking as “Ted’s dead,” but the news of loss and grief is never easy to hear.

Despite the good-natured jokes about pastors only working one hour a week, I think most people know that ministry involves much more than preaching. I suspect, however, that very few people recognize the emotional toll that real ministry takes on pastors. Week after week we receive those calls that someone in our church family or community has died. We just barely get through the valley of the shadow of death when we must enter it again and walk through it with people who are hurting.

Over time we learn to adjust to the grief and deal with the pain. We may even convince ourselves that we have finally “gotten used to it,” but the truth is we never really get used to it. By definition, grief hurts and it drains us. Our calling and our compassion will not let us go through the motions of ministry and avoid being affected by loss. We carry the pain, deal with the guilt, and wrestle with our emotions like everyone else. We just go through it more often than most people, so we are more familiar with it.

Ministry happens within a context of real-life issues that remind us of our need for God and for one another. Ministry is about relationships. It is not having all the answers or “getting used to” the painful experiences in life. Ministry is about being real enough to share life in meaningful ways.

The call to ministry is not a one-time event. The calls keep coming because people keep suffering. The phone never stops ringing, and the Lord never stops providing.

The Old Barn and the New Baby

When I was a kid, my family had an ornate, wooden table that sat in the living room. For most of the year it held a marble chess set and was usually ignored. For a few weeks each year, however, it was transformed into a place of honor. When it was time to decorate the house for Christmas, the chess set was removed and replaced with our nativity scene which sat on top of a royal blue satin tablecloth. Like most nativity scenes, ours included a couple of barn animals, a shepherd with sheep, three wisemen, an angel, and of course, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. Many of my childhood memories have faded over the years, but I think I remember that we used to take turns setting it up. I am the youngest of four siblings and each year one of us got the honor of placing the little figurines in and around the old, rugged barn. 

When it was my turn to set up the nativity scene, I always wanted to find a creative way to arrange the characters. I thought I was using my imagination and making it look better than the boring way the others would do it. I even remember trying to use my Play-Doh to attach the angel to the roof of the barn, but that never worked very well.

Thinking back now I realize that no matter how we arranged the pieces, the scene would always look pretty much the same. Jesus was laid in the manger, which was obviously in the center of the barn. After that, it didn’t matter where we put the other figurines, because they were all turned so they could “see” Baby Jesus. The shepherd was making his way to the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes that the angel had told him about. The wise men all carried their gifts to the Christ child as they followed the star. Mary and Joseph were each on one knee as they tilted their heads and looked lovingly at their baby boy, while the angel stood close by watching guard and singing praises. Even the barn animals were laying quietly in the hay and looking intently at their Creator. 

The old nativity scene wound up looking pretty much the same year after year, regardless of who set it up, because it always focused on the same center point. Jesus was at the center of the scene. All attention was on Him. The Light of the World was shining in the darkness and all of creation paused to welcome Him. May that still be our experience today. In the midst of parties, shopping, family gatherings, traveling, putting up lights, watching our favorites movies, etc. etc., let us not forget the Baby at the center of it all. Jesus was not born so that we could have a holiday. We have a holiday because Jesus was born. We celebrate Christmas as a way of rearranging our lives as necessary to make sure He is at the center. We rejoice this time of year because Christ has come, God’s promise has been fulfilled, and we can find life and light in Him. 

It was just an old set of figurines and an awkwardly shaped barn. It was little more than a toy; but it told a story. The story of the Baby born in a barn is just the beginning. The manger mystery leads to the hillsides of teaching and the streets of miracles. Those streets lead us to the hill called Calvary. The hill directs us to the empty tomb, then the mountaintop, and eventually a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Like the figurines in the nativity scene, let’s keep our eyes on Him, and not let anything distract us from the One in center stage. More than anything else, we need to see Him, to hear Him call, and follow Him home.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” Isaiah 9:6

Four Steps You Can’t Leave Out When Conducting an Event

There are a few steps that often get overlooked when conducting an event in a church or ministry. Many of the tasks involved with planning and promoting are well-known and are easy to remember, but be sure you don’t leave these four out.

1. Pray it Through

“Praying it through” is not just asking God to bless your event. Get specific. Talk to God about the details. Ask for His guidance in decisions. Share your ideas and your concerns. Pray through the entire plan and involve God in the whole process.

2. Walk it Through

One of the most neglected steps is also one of the most important ones. Too often, we schedule events and only think about the “big picture.” The only way to successfully lead others through a meaningful event is to focus on the details and know what you want the participants to experience. Therefore, once you make your plans, walk through the experience for yourself. If possible, actually walk into the venue. If that’s not possible, visualize it. Think of yourself as a participant. Picture yourself entering the room, going through each part of the event, and leaving when it’s over. Concentrate on the transitions. As a participant, how will you know what to do, where to go, etc.? What supplies will you need? What decorations, lighting, and audio would enhance your experience? Walk through the event before the event occurs, or you will stumble through it along with your participants.

3. Talk it Through

Once you have experienced the event in your imagination, you are ready to share the vision with the people who are going to help you run the event. Talk about it in great detail so each person understands what role they are to play, when they are to do their part, and how their work will enhance the overall experience of the participants.

4. See it Through

Participate fully in the event. You want to model participation and share the experience with the people who are attending. Then, even make their exit meaningful. You can do that by giving them “next steps” so they know how to apply what they have learned, or you can give them a small gift, or have people thank them on their way out. Once everyone has left, make sure someone cleans up and puts the venue back in order. Then, as soon as you can, invest some time in evaluating your event and debriefing with the people who helped you run it. Solidify any plans or assignments for follow up. In other words, see your event all the way through. It is not over just because the people leave. There is still work to be done until even after the lights have been turned off.

Obviously, these are not the only steps to conducting a successful event, but they are important steps that are often left out. Make sure you include them the next time you prepare for an event.

Fog It!

A few years ago I was going through one of the worst times of my life. My blood pressure was up and my stress was out of control. The turning point of my recovery occurred when I made a new friend. Ben was wise and compassionate. He had been through difficult times before and he had helped many others get through difficult times as well.

When I needed to talk, Ben was there. Sometimes he even arrived unannounced to encourage me or give me a break. It was during one of those healing conversations that I told him about my exhaustion and the pain I felt from all the verbal assaults I was having to endure. I noticed that grin beginning to form behind his bushy beard. It was his signature grin that meant, “I can’t wait to see your reaction to the advice I’m about to give you.” As I prepared myself for the profound wisdom that was certainly on its way, I was surprised that he only said two words, “Fog it!”

His response snapped me out of my self-pity and ignited my curiosity. I asked what he meant and his explanation gave me a new, life-changing perspective. “If you are stiff and rigid like a pane of glass, you will shatter when people throw rocks at you. But if you are like fog, the rocks people throw just go right on through and fall to the ground without effecting you. Fog it!”

Several times over the next few weeks I would get upset or defensive and he would remind me, “Fog it!” Soon I was able to remind myself. Years later, people still say or do hurtful things from time to time, and Ben is no longer here to talk me through it. But I often think of him, take a deep breath, and “fog it.”

In a world full of glass, where people are constantly getting shattered and trying to shatter those around them, fog it! That does not mean that we no longer take a stand for truth and justice. It simply means that when attacked on a personal level, we have some say in how much damage that attack causes. In most cases, we can decide to let a personal attack sail on by without allowing it to break us into pieces. When someone is intentionally hurtful, unfair, or rude we get to decide how much their words will impact us. If the other person’s goal is to hurt me and I let myself break to pieces, they have been successful so they win. If, however, I choose not to let their words effect me, they fail and I win!

I have found great freedom and tremendous strength in that lesson from Ben so I wanted to share it with you. Friend, there are times when we need to just “Fog it!”

When someone is intentionally hurtful, unfair, or rude we get to decide how much their words will impact us.

A Preacher’s Prayer

Lord, speak to me during preparation, and speak through me during proclamation.

May this message be Your Word to Your people for Your glory.


Check the Bushes!

When I was kid, some of the neighbors would play “War” with my older brothers and me. It was basically “Hide and Seek.” We would hide and sneak around and then “shoot” the other guys with our imaginary weapons. The goal was to be the last man standing.

After playing the game a few times, I noticed a trend. Every game seemed to end the same way. All of the guys would end up arguing over who shot whom first. It was an important part of the game, because if David shot Richard first, then Richard could not have shot the neighbor kid. You can imagine how long (and how heated) those discussions might get.

Once I realized that they always argued at the end of the game, my little 6 year old brain went to work. Since I was the youngest, I was often overlooked which would work to my advantage this time. I found the perfect hiding place in the bushes. Then I just waited. Sure enough, after everyone had “shot” at everyone else, they began their normal routine of arguing and claiming victory. They forgot all about the little kid in the bushes. Once they were actively involved in the finger pointing and chest pounding, I jumped from my hiding place with my trusty sub-machine gun and wiped them all out.

Did that really happen? I honestly think so. However, I would have been pretty young and I only have a foggy memory of the event. It is possible that I’m actually remembering a dream or a story from my early childhood. Regardless of the veracity of my story, it has served me well through the years as a reminder to not let my guard down and get distracted by squabbles and quarrels.

We have an enemy who often uses a similar strategy to the one I used as a kid. He will cleverly hide himself so we don’t think about him. Then he will turn us against each other and watch with glee as we call each other names, malign one another, belittle and accuse one another. I imagine he has to hold back his own giggles as he lurks between the leaves trying not to laugh out loud at our vicious attacks on one another. Brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends all yelling and screaming and trying to prove they are “right” must please him beyond measure. When we puff out our chests and declare to others that they are the losers, he just stands by in the bushes enjoying the fruit of his labor.

And then, when our attention is on one another and we are not even thinking about the dangers around us, he attacks. We are easy prey because we have not been paying attention. Peter warned us about that. 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us to, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (NIV) Notice who our enemy is. Our enemy is not the person who looks, votes, talks, or thinks differently than we do. We have a common enemy, and one of his primary objectives is to get us fighting one another so we forget about him. If he can get us focused on beating each other, we will forget to check the bushes. When we have worn each other out and we are weakened by our own anger and pride, he is ready to pounce. It is then that friendships end, families are torn apart, churches are split, and we all suffer.

Beloved, we don’t have to agree on everything. As a matter of fact, we will never agree on everything. But we surely can’t turn on each other and lower our common defenses to give the enemy entrance into our lives and relationships. Let’s take care of one another, love one another, and serve one another. Let’s have each other’s backs instead of being at each other’s throats. And as we face the world together, let’s stay strong and not make the enemy’s job any easier!

Meat, Masks, and Motivations

I can’t help but think there are some principles in Paul’s teachings about meat that some of us might be able to apply to our decisions about masks and social distancing.

In Paul’s day people in the church were debating about whether or not they should eat meat, because some of the meat might have come from sacrifices to idols. Paul told the Romans and the Corinthians that if they made those decisions based on what they wanted for themselves, theywere making a mistake. Instead, they should make decisions about eating meat based on what was best for others. “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” (Rom. 14:15a)

Paul explained that meat was not really the issue. People who ate meat were not better or worse than those who didn’t eat it. “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (1 Cor. 8:8) However, he did stress that people could exercise their freedom in a way that was sensitive to those who were more concerned about meat. “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Cor. 8:9)

Paul was basically telling the meat-eaters that while they had the freedom to eat meat, there might be good reasons for them to sacrifice for others and not do what they wanted to do. He encouraged his brothers and sisters in Christ to stay focused on what was really important, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17) He taught that the strength of the community was worth the effort. “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Rom. 14:19)