A few Septembers to remember

septembers-to-remember

September is a strange month for me. I’ve already talked about how September 11 is a mixture of laughter and sorrow in our house, thanks to our new family traditions. And, of course, there’s the anniversary of bringing Mihret home from Ethiopia. But there’s also a series of days in September that lead me to some self-reflection, contemplation, prayer, and even a little bit of dreaming. These anniversaries aren’t necessarily things I celebrate. They turned my world and my family’s world upside down. But I think they’re worth discussing,

September 1999

I did not attend Milligan with the intent of going into Youth Ministry. I don’t know what I really thought I was going to do with my Ministry degree, but youth ministry really wasn’t in my plan. Thanks to the recommendation of one of my professors, a church search committee approached me. Would I consider moving to Kentucky to take over the ministry programming from preschool thru college-aged students?

i’d recently graduated. I was a newlywed. And this position kind of fell into my lap. OK, it didn’t exactly fall into my lap. It wasn’t handed to me. I had to go through the interviews. We had to go through the process. But it was clear that doors were opening. So, although it was never part of my grand plan, I became a Youth Minister and moved our tiny little family of two to central Kentucky in early 1999.

It was clear from the beginning that I didn’t know what I was doing. Really. I can say that with almost two decades of analysis. I was ill-equipped. I can’t blame my alma mater for that. I just didn’t pay much attention to anything anyone said about youth ministry during my ministry-related classes because I was convinced I wasn’t going into youth ministry after college.

I was wrong. And it showed.

Christy tried to help me as much as she could. The staff tried to help me as much as they could. But in the end, there were too many unsaid, unmet, and unrealistic expectations. I had them. So did the Board. And so in early September, 1999, the Elders and I agreed that we should part ways.

This hurt in a lot of ways. This might be one of my biggest regrets. In retrospect, I believe things could have changed. Everything could have improved. And if I could go back and change things, I probably would. I was already emotionally exhausted just a few months into this ministry. So I left. And it hurt.

But I learned a lot from it. I was more confident than ever in my calling into some type of full time pastoral work. So I started addressing some organizational and administrative issues. I also talked to other youth ministers, attended some conferences, and had a better vision of what I thought a dynamic, impacting youth ministry would look like. And so I approached my next ministry position with a fresh outlook and renewed vigor.

September 2002

After everyone survived the Y2K non-disaster, I joined the ministry staff of a church in the Indianapolis area. With a great group of adult volunteers, some strong student leaders, and a passion to impact Indy, we made a difference. We went on a mission trip to serve a ministry reaching the Navajo nation. We began a student-led Sunday night worship service that was pretty fabulous. We hosted Christian concerts. We attended CIY’s summer conferences and Believe conferences. We had a written purpose and Vision. An abandoned firehouse was transformed into a student outreach center. Teens were getting baptized. Lives were being changed. I was turning down job opportunities at other churches. Things were clicking on all cylinders.

Then the wheels fell off.

Administrative issues kept rearing their ugly heads. Instead of addressing them head-on, I just pretended they didn’t exist. I wasn’t spending enough time with some of our students. Some parents were upset. That got other people upset. Including my immediate supervisor.

Bada-bing, Bada-boom…

I left the Student Ministry position in September, 2002. I felt betrayed, alone, and uncertain what to do next.

The Interim

I found myself questioning God quite a bit during this time. While I told my youth ministry kids, “Don’t give up on the church,” I have to admit that I was close to doing that myself. We tried attending churches nearby. We were always met by former members from my former employer. “What are you doing here?” they would ask, oblivious of the events that had recently transpired. It was a completely innocent question, but it cut like a knife.

Every. single. Sunday.

We eventually found a church in Fishers. It was a small church plant with big dreams. It was a place where we could get plugged in, but we could also start the healing process. It was like a soothing balm for our hurting souls.

Christy and I had two very young kids by this point. I did whatever I could to provide for them. I worked in warehouses. I managed a pizza joint. I was a substitute teacher. We moved in with my father in law for what was supposed to be just a month or two. Maybe three. It eventually turned into two years. I still attended conferences. I got some counseling. I learned some organizational tools that still help me today.

We knew this was just a season. But I’m not going to lie. It was hard. I had interview after interview. Christy and I wound up visiting all kinds of churches all over the place: from Iowa to Florida.

Nothing.

To make a long story short, we returned to Upper East Tennessee. I enrolled in seminary to solidify whatever cracks may have surfaced in my ministry foundation.

September 2011

After Christy earned her M.Ed degree at ETSU and I had completed three years of seminary, we started to sense that our season in Tennessee’s fair eastern mountains was coming to a close. In the Summer before what was going to be my final year in seminary, we loaded up a moving van, hugged some dear friends, and waved goodbye to Johnson City. I had accepted a preaching position in a small church south of Muncie, Indiana. It was a homecoming, of sorts. And because of a series of events that included some wide open doors and some doors that had been slammed shut, I was confident we were where God had led us. I think it’s safe to say, though, that I never really felt at home there.

Some great things happened during that ministry. There were some pretty high highlights. I baptized Aiden and Alyson there. But I’m not going to lie. It was a rocky time. Whenever I’d get together with other pastors from the area, someone would always wind up saying, “I can’t believe you’ve stuck around with them this long.” And this was without telling them anything that had been going on.

I’m not gong to lie. I questioned God. A lot. Why would God lead me somewhere like this? There were days when it felt like I couldn’t do anything to ever satisfy some people in the congregation. I felt like a punching bag sometimes.

But when you look at people like Jeremiah, Elijah, and even Moses, it’s important to remember that “calling” does not always equal “fun times.” Sometimes God asks us to do things we don’t really want to do. And since I was still sure that God had led us to East Central Indiana, I needed to stop complaining and keep doing my best to reach our community. But I quietly looked around for other opportunities.

I stuck around with them for four years before they decided they’d had enough of me. It was pretty apparent early on that I wasn’t going to retire there. I was never going to be seen as a “local.” I saw first hand how the stereotypes about small churches might be more true than we want to admit. And there was plenty of talk about people and their problems instead of talking to them. And very little was actually decided upon by those in leadership. People just kind of did what they wanted to do and claimed the leadership had agreed to it. And that worked because nobody really knew what they really did or didn’t agree to do.

It is no secret that I was not surprised when they fired me. But it still hurt. A lot. The sense of betrayal cut deep. I could go into details, but I won’t. Let’s just say that it took a long time for those wounds to heal. It honestly took a good teeth-kicking.

Moving on

Things have certainly changed over the years since we were pushed out of Eacst Central Indiana. Our family has grown. I’ve picked up marketing/PR skills and experience. I know who I am. And I know Whose I am. That’s where I find my satisfaction and worth. I don’t need a title or position to have meaning.  Although I do preach in some area churches on occasion, I’ve moved on.

I’ve moved on.

Do I question my calling? Nope. I believe God used me in each of those ministry situations. I also firmly believe that He is using me right here where I am now. And that isn’t in the pulpit.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I plan on returning to the pulpit full-time. I say that I’m not against it. But it will require a giant neon sign floating in the sky that refers to me by name with a very specific set of instructions.

And I’m only half joking.

After seeing the dark underbelly of, for lack of a better word, church “politics,” you might wonder what I think about church in general. I think it could be argued that I’m even more dedicated tot he ministry of the church throughout the world, I’m spite of my not-so-positive experiences. In reality, all of us are messed up. And when messed up people get together, they’re likely to make messed up decisions and mess up some things along the way. That’s the beauty of the mission of God. He uses messed up people with messed up lives to accomplish His plan.

Don’t believe me?

There are countless examples in the Bible. If you need for me to, I can spell them out for you. If I was still preaching regularly, it would make a great sermon series. Maybe I’ll just write a book instead.

Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I don’t think I need a neon sign for that one.

A former pastor’s plea: Encourage your pastor.

Recently, I found myself looking through some archived emails of mine. I was searching for an old piece of information. I don’t remember what I needed, exactly. But I remember that I needed the information for some type of job application.

Mr Popular

During my quest, I stumbled upon some conversations that happened during the years I was pastoring that small church in East Central Indiana. While I believe I have completely moved on from that experience, having let go of whatever bitterness I had harbored (remember when God kicked me in the teeth?), I’m not gonna lie. Reading some of those emails hurt my heart.

Not one of the emails I had read was positive. My inbox was full of messages that pointed out what I wasn’t doing right. They focused on the negative. Not one of the 8-10 emails that I skimmed had a positive comment. That still hurts my heart.

It hurts my heart because I know I’m not the only pastor to have received emails like this. It hurt my heart because I know that many pastors have received emails like that this week. Maybe even today. And at the same time, they haven’t received any words of encouragement. I know it’s easier to point out areas improvement instead of talking about what was done well, but a constant barrage of negativity, continually hearing things like…

“You didn’t do _________.”
or
“You forgot to pray for _________.”
or
“Why haven’t you brought more young families to our church?”
or
“We’re not growing. What are you going to do about it?”
or
“Why haven’t you visited _________ yet? She’s had a hangnail on her pinky for a week!”  – OK. I’m only half joking about this last one. You’d be amazed at how some people get worked up about the silliest of things, though.

A constant barrage of negative attitudes, criticisms, and complaints with no reprieve can wear you out. Pastoring can be a lonely profession. Being a recipient of such discouraging messages over and over again only makes things even more isolating.

It’s no wonder so many people walk away from the pastorate.

I know this isn’t the goal of most people who complain and gripe and criticize. But it happens. And this isn’t healthy. There’s already a spiritual battle taking place around our church leaders. Let’s try to minimize casualties due to friendly fire, shall we? So let’s do something about it. Let’s all work on being an encouragement to our pastors and anyone else in church leadership positions.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up - 1 Thessalonians 5:11

This month is Pastor Appreciation Month. It’s a good time to start fixing this heartbreaking trend. But please don’t stop when the calendar switches to November.

Here are some ways you can encourage your pastor all year long:

1.) Send a note.

You have no idea how much impact a simple note or card can have. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. All it really needs to say is “You’re doing a good job,” or something like “I appreciate you because _______” or even a simple “Thank you.” These simple gestures don’t take very much time but they are powerful.

I used to keep a “Feel Good” folder tucked away in my files. Whenever I was having a really tough day, I would pull that out and look through a couple of the notes and cards I’d received over the years. These items are always a beacon of light whenever times are tough and it feels like the darkness is creeping in.

2.) Watch what you say.

There are times you have to be critical. I get that. I understand that. Criticism isn’t a bad thing. It’s important. It helps people grow and improve. We have to help each other get better. It’s part of how iron sharpens iron.

BUT…

Don’t let the only things that come out of your mouth be negative. Consider following this rule: for every criticism/complaint/negative comment you make, say three positive things. It might sound silly, but it’s a simple reminder to keep our eyes on the positive.

And even when you need to say something critical, make sure you’re still speaking life. We are called to be life-givers. Not soul-suckers.

Speak life. In all you do and say, speak life.

3.) Help protect your pastor’s family.

Pastoring is tough. It can be even tougher on a pastor’s family. Family Life has some pretty good suggestions about how you can encourage your pastor by helping to protect your pastor’s family.

4.) Bring a guest.

You want to make your pastor’s day? Maybe even your pastor’s month? Invite a guest to participate in a worship service with you. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. You don’t even have to introduce your guest to the pastor. If you’re part of the majority of churches in America, your pastor is probably begging you to bring a friend some Sunday. Imagine what an encouragement it would be if your pastor found out that you did what you were asked to do!

Avoiding friendly fire.

When I was ordained 15 years ago, I remember being told by a few people during the service that I was now a “marked man.” In other words, we are in the midst of a spiritual war and choosing to step into a role as a church leader means that you’ve decided to allow a giant target to be placed upon you. Satan wants to see the Church destroyed. A great way to do that is by destroying her leaders.

I firmly believe that a spiritual war is waging all around us. As we are fighting in this war, however, let’s make sure that the target that’s on our leaders doesn’t get moved to their backs. Let’s avoid wounding our pastors with friendly fire.

I’m open to suggestions!

What are you going to do to encourage your pastor this week? These four ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. I’d love to hear your suggestions. We’re all on the same side. Let’s work together to encourage and lift up our church leaders in ways they’ve never experienced before! When we do that, we’ll have a tiny part in changing the world.

I admit that I haven’t been as good at being an encouragement to my church leaders and pastors as I should be. So while I’m waiting for your awesome suggestions, I’m going to go sit down and write some notes to some members of our church staff.

I hope you’ll join me.

G is for Guest Preaching

A to Z Challenge G is for Guest Preaching

a to z Challenge G is for Guest Preaching

From Santa Claus, Indiana, to Muncie, and various points in between, I’ve had the honor and privilege of serving as a guest preacher, sharing the gospel message throughout this fine State. Church circles refer to this activity as ‘supply preaching’ or ‘pulpit supply.’ I don’t really like those terms because…well…much like the word ‘transubstantiation,’ nobody really seems to know what ‘supply preaching actually means. So I generally refer to myself as a guest preacher.

I’ve taken a brief hiatus from guest preaching over the last few months while Christy has been recovering from her procedure. It’s now time, however, to start ramping up my preaching again because I can’t stop. Seriously. I’ve tried. I’ve wanted to give up preaching. I promise. But I keep going back and doing it again and again and again.

If I remember correctly, one of my great-great-grandfathers* was an itinerant preacher who traveled the countryside and shared the message with area churches. So I guess you could say I’m following in the footsteps of a man I’ve never met, passing on the Light that has been passed on to me.

As you probably know, I spent four-plus years as the sole staff member in a small rural church in Indiana. I know what it’s like to try to find a substitute for a Sunday morning. It can be stressful to find someone to preach in your stead while you’re taking your family on vacation or to visit extended family out of town. I consider it a blessing to be able to help relieve some of that stress on pastors who usually have far too much stress and unrealistic expectations bearing down on them anyway. I guess you could say it’s a way I can minister to those who are ministering.

I think the most exciting thing about guest preaching has been to spend time with other believers from around the State. They’ve been an amazing encouragement! I’m looking forward to what God has in store for us as He continues to write His next chapter through my life.

Where I'll preach in Indiana

I guess I can’t really write all of this without adding this little plug: If you know of any churches within less than two hours of driving from Indianapolis (this isn’t a hard-fast rule. I’m willing to make exceptions), it would be awesome if you’d have them look me up. No church is too small or too big. I would love to share God’s Word with them! They can check out some samples of some of my sermons at Sermons by Matt.

*I’m really not sure how many “greats” this grandfather is, so I settled on great-great. I’m sure you understand. 

Available for Guest Preaching

I’ve hinted about it on occasion since leaving Muncie, but I am making myself available for supply preaching and guest preaching at churches in the area (read: within a 2-hour driving distance of the south side of Indianapolis). If you know of any churches looking for someone to fill in for whatever reason (even last-minute), I’d appreciate it if you’d pass my name along.

Sermons By Matt has samples of some of my messages and a page where I can be contacted. It will soon have a copy of my resume, too.

So – if anyone needs a guest preacher anytime in the near (or not-so-near) future, I’m your guy!  

Next Chapter…

Vintage Typewriter
Free Stock Photo courtesy of picxclicx.com

This past Sunday after the service, I was informed that I had preached my final sermon at the church. I guess I should say it wasn’t because of any ‘moral failure’ or anything like that. If you really want to know more, email me (mattdantodd at gmail dot com) and we can talk about it. I’m not going to give out very many details, though. I hope that doesn’t disappoint you.

If it does…well…I guess that’s too bad. 😉

For those of you who already know this and have reached out to us, I want to thank you again for your kindness, your concern, and most importantly – your prayers. God is good and as I have continued to preach over the last four years, His light shines brightest when our world is darkest.

I’m excited to discover the next chapter that He writes with the Life in the Fishbowl family!

Billy Madison & the Preacher Man

There are times when I’m done preaching on a Sunday morning that I step down from the pulpit and I’m not entirely sure if I sufficiently communicated the message I was trying to convey. As I’m greeting people while they leave, I half-expect someone to disregard the standard, “Good sermon, preacher,” and say this to me instead…

Now – do I really think that any of my sermons were rambling and incoherent and have made everyone dumber just from hearing them? Well, no. But I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering if what I tried to say was actually communicated in the way I’d hoped. I guess that gives me a good enough reason to continue to work on my sermons and to improve everything about them. After all, it’s a pretty important message I’m trying to share, isn’t it?

With that being said, I had fun with yesterday’s sermon. In talking about how God sent us a gift in Jesus Christ, I had the opportunity to share how I asked Christy to marry me. It was fun telling the story. If you haven’t heard it, you can read (or listen to) it here.

What was I thinking?

So, I’ve decided to do an eight week series going through the Psalms for the rest of the Summer. And I’ve now come to the realization that it’s a pretty tall order to choose just eight of the 150 to highlight.

A Star Wars Tie for Star Wars Day

Several years ago (maybe 10?),

[info]auntratsy

gave me a really cool tie. It’s bright blue at the top, and fades into a black with Darth Vader at the bottom. It’s probably my favorite tie because you can wear it with a suit or a sport coat and people don’t even have to know that it’s a Star Wars tie. I wore it to my cousin’s wedding and to my Milligan commencement ceremony. From the top, it just looks like a classy blue tie. If I can find any pictures, I’ll post them.

I was tempted to wear my Darth Vader tie to church this morning, since it is Star Wars Day, after all!

I wasn’t sure if anyone would be offended that a preacher was wearing a tie with Darth Vader on it. So I opted for something different. Maybe next year.

May the Fourth be you!

Read any good books lately?

I’m looking for a good book or two to read. I’d prefer fiction. It can be historical. As long as it is narrative. I’ve been reading all kinds of books recently, but none of them have really told a story. I need to read a good story now and again. I’ve been listening to The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle in its audiobook form. It’s been a very interesting story to hear. And unless I’m mistaken, the last work of fiction that I read was Red Storm Rising – and that was nearly two years ago. It’s time to get into some good stories.

I’ve noticed I’m much more comfortable using a narrative style when I preach. If that’s the case, I really should be reading more stories, don’t you think? One way to become a better storyteller is to listen and/or read other great storytellers. And I have the privilege of telling the greatest story ever told every week! It only makes sense that I should continue to sharpen that area.

So – read any good books lately? What do you recommend?