The first church my wife Tammy and I served in a lead role was a struggling inner city congregation on the East Side of Buffalo, NY. We faced many challenges, but those challenged were counterbalanced by the mentoring influence of Art & June Carlson. The Carlsons oversaw that congregation as well as many other urban ministries in the city of Buffalo at the time. The Carlsons shared the benefit of their forty years of ministry experience with us by telling stories of highs and lows, by giving us advice on what’s most important in ministry, by asking the right questions, and by listening to us. Their mentoring changed us forever, and one of the enduring memories I have of them is hearing their oft-repeated trustworthy sayings for ministry. We heard them often during those years, and it was some of the best advice I ever received as a pastor. Here are the ones I remember most.
1. There are two types of problems: “people problems” and “no-people problems.”
When you’re working with any group of people there will be headaches, interpersonal conflict, fights, gossip, etc. Those are “people problems.” Yet the only thing worse than “people problems” is “no-people problems.” When no one shows up, attendance is low, giving is low, and there are no volunteers to deploy. That’s a much bigger problem.
Art would remind us that it’s a problem if no people are showing up, but when people do show up they bring problems with them. So he always said, “‘People problems’ are better than ‘no-people problems.’” When the ministry was growing, he’d say, “No more ‘no-people problems,’ but you know what’s coming next, don’t’ you?”
As any pastor knows, if you handle the “people problems” poorly, pretty soon you’ll be dealing with “no-people problems.”
2. There are three rules: 1) Love the people, 2) Love the people, and 3) Love the people.
Some days it is harder than others to love people as a pastor. On difficult days Art would often smile at me and say, “Well, you know the three rules, right?”
3. If it doesn’t do anything for you, it won’t do anything for them.
Art believed that a sermon must move the preacher if it is worth preaching. If it doesn’t mean anything to you, or move you as the preacher, you can hardly expect it to mean anything to those who hear you, let alone move them to action. He believed passion and conviction were the key ingredients for effective preaching. Almost every time I prepare to preach or teach, these words ring in my ears.
4. These people need a lift, not a load.
Art told me once that these words were inscribed on the pulpit in one of the churches he served, and that he had to see them every Sunday when he preached (my guess is that this is a paraphrase of Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” NIV). So many Sundays as a pastor I have looked out over church pews and realized that the people need a lift, not a load.
5. You need to put fresh wood in the fire.
When a couple serves in ministry together, it is easy for the marriage to suffer. Art often cautioned us about the consequences of taking the marriage relationship for granted. During high-intensity seasons of ministry he would urge us to go out to dinner together, or to make sure we were paying attention to our relationship. He would say, “You need to keep fresh wood in the fire to keep it burning.”
6. You need to sing.
The Carlsons described that inner city congregation we were serving as “a hornet’s nest,” and they were right. June Carlson was listening to us one day as we were expressing our discouragement at the problems we were facing. Frankly, we were probably on the verge of quitting, and were desperate for a solution – or to be delivered. She interrupted us to say, “You need to sing.” Then, she described how she would sing a song of praise throughout the day during a difficult season to ward off discouragement. Ajith Fernando says, “Usually in times of distress … our hearts remain engulfed by the problems. Songs help truth travel down to the heart, and the use of music, the language of the heart, helps speed that process.” I have found that, in the trials and struggles of daily life, one of the most undervalued tools we have in our arsenal is our ability to sing in the dark. Singing in the dark is an antiseptic for anxiety. “You need to sing,” she said, and she was right. It was some of the best advice I have ever received.
© Steve Dunmire 2014
Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.