General Assembly
of the Church of God
in Michigan

"equipping local congregations
to extend the Kingdom of God"

October 15, 2018

An Invitation I Tried To Refuse

Rev. Herb Shaffer

When your loving Heavenly Dad invites you to do something that you long for, but scares you silly, what do you do?

"Come sit on my lap."

Those were the words that began to wreck my heart and my life.

Those were words that I never expected to hear. Not anywhere on the fringes of my radar. And yet, there they were.

It was the fall of 1998 when it happened. One of my best friends, Jim Harvey, told me about fasting and modeled very practical ways to use it to connect with God. As I gave in to Jim’s badgering, I discovered he was right. I built regular fasting into my schedule. But I never, ever expected anything like this.

"Come sit on my lap."

During one of the three day juice fasts, while praying at my desk, a picture came to mind. A picture and words from God. Now before you remark, "Oh, Herb is one of those," please understand that I'm not claiming to see apocalyptic visions or that I go into supernatural trances. But it does seem that, when God wants to show me something important, He does it by bringing pictures and words to mind. Out of the ordinary pictures and words that dive through my mind and heart to land in my soul.

"Come sit on my lap."

Those were the inaudible words I sensed as a picture of God sitting on a throne came into my mind. I was ready for God to give me any instruction. Actually, correction is what I most expected. For Him to tell me where I was going wrong or that I needed to shape up in some way. I was ready for instructions on being a better husband, parent or pastor. I would not have been surprised to hear directions for the church or even to pick up the family and move. There was nothing that would have surprised me except…an invitation to experience this level of familiarity with God.

"Come sit on my lap."

There are very few times when it is appropriate to sit on a person's lap. Only two that I can think of. A wife with her husband. A child with a trusted family member, most often a parent. Sitting on another’s lap is so very, very, very intimate. It is an experience of closeness, of a familiarity shared by few. Putting God in the same sentence with intimacy was not in my repertoire. I thought of God in a lot of ways, but I never imagined crawling into His holy lap.

"Come sit on my lap."

My relationship with my human father was troubled at best. Marked by the emotional abuse of words that consistently body slammed me to the ground, distant would be a kind description of our relationship. I grew up longing for life-giving verbal and physical affirmation, but received scraps. I walled my heart off from closeness out of pure protection and survival. In 1998, twenty-three years removed from daily living in that emotional morass, God gave me an invitation that would rock my world.

"Come sit on my lap."

I shake my head when I realize that I had been a Christian for more than 25 years and a pastor for more than 15 years. I had taught, preached, counseled and written about relationship with God. I was confident I knew what it meant. Turns out I knew about God, but I only superficially knew God. I was reeling as those words kept echoing through the cavern of my soul.

"Come sit on my lap."

Being the spiritual pastor that I am, I responded as God knew I would. "I CAN'T!!" I cried out. "I want to, but I can't!"

Yeah, I know. Not what you were expecting. It was the only honest response. When God shows up so clearly, it's prudent to be honest.

It wasn't that I didn't want to. It's that I could not bring myself to believe that God could want me to come that close. When you’ve been stung a hundred times, you stay far away from the bee hive. Even though it was not God who stung me, I could not bring myself to obey. I was spiritually paralyzed. It ended there and the picture was gone.

Except when it wasn't. That was every time I prayed. The picture and the words re-emerged every time I prayed. The conversation and the scene played out the same every time. For SIX MONTHS. God is persistent when He wants His way, when He wants us to have what is best for us, when He wants to heal our souls, and when He sees we are the hurting, helpless, pitiful children that we are. I am inexpressibly grateful that God is the “hound of Heaven” who relentlessly pursues.

One day, after half a year, God and I were at it again.

"Come sit on my lap," He said.

"I CAN'T, but I want to!" I replied.

Then, for some reason I added, "If you will help me, I will."

Everything changed! That was all it took. The picture of God on the throne changed. One moment, it was the familiar scene of Him sitting with open arms of invitation. The next moment, the picture transformed to God reaching down to me, picking me up, sitting me on His lap and wrapping His arms around me. And I began to bawl. I could feel His arms around me, flooding me with feelings of value I had never experienced before.

Something significant changed in me that day. Chains were broken. Walls fell. Distance was breeched. And I have never been the same.

"Come sit on my lap," has become a welcome invitation every time I pray. I can close my eyes and sense myself being pulled onto God's lap. I tear up every time it happens in response to the overwhelming intimacy of God’s love and His unrelenting pursuit of this close and personal relationship with me.


Another Description of Intimacy

Intimacy is the word that captures the description of God’s care expressed in the Old Testament book of Zephaniah:

The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.-- Zephaniah 3:17

This is a picture of a strong, loving daddy holding a small child who is upset, perhaps scared, in pain, or over tired. Thrilled to have the child in his arms, he quiets the little one with words and touches of love. Later, the child awakes to find daddy singing loudly as he picks the child up with great joy. A treasured, cherished child and a strong, loving Dad experiencing an intimate relationship.

Look at Zephaniah's words:

"in your midst"-God is right with us.

"a mighty one who will save"-Powerful, God will protect and rescue.

"rejoice over you with gladness"-Great joy to have us in His arms. Great gladness just because we are together.

"he will quiet you by his love"-He will settle us, love on us, let us know it will be okay.

"he will exult over you with loud singing."-God sings over us with great delight.

The Invitation is for You!

God did not invite me to sit on His lap because I deserved it, earned it or was more valuable than anyone else. It was because God is love and created us for intimacy with Him. All of us. That means God is inviting you as well.

Accept that invitation in whatever forms it arrives. And as quickly as you can.

Perhaps this moment is your invitation. As you read my story, maybe you felt the same tug to climb on to God’s lap. If so, put the book down and do it. You can’t imagine how thrilled God will be or the joy filled satisfaction that will overflow your soul.

However, those the Father has given me will come to me, and I will never reject them.-- John 6:37 (NLT)

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." -- Matthew 11:28–30

Rev. Herb Shaffer has pastored the New Song Community Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for more than 25 years, and is the Director of the Institute for Servant Leadership. He has published two books: From Where God Sits and Intimacy and Awe. The following selection is from Intimacy and Awe. You can order his books from, or to receive his blog directly, sign up at

October 8, 2018

Robert Terrill Rundle

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Banff, Alberta, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. The beautiful town was filled with tourists who were sampling every conceivable type of Poutine, a popular Canadian dish. As my friends and I rested (and digested) on a bench, I noticed there was a large Methodist Church on the corner with a large rock pylon that read:


Rev. Robert Terrill Rundle
Methodist Minister
First Missionary in Alberta
Visited Indians at Banff

Raised in the Anglican Church in Cornwall, Rundle converted to Wesleyan Methodist during college and his first charge was to Rupert's Land (Canada) to serve as Chaplain at Ford Edmonton with the Hudson Bay Company. There he conversed with the First Nations on a very stilted basis. When he went into their lodges, however, he found they were a warm and hospitable people. He established several missions to the Cree and Dakota nations, helped them with agricultural improvements, and introduced syllabics to them, enabling them to read and write in their own language.


I took a picture of the memorial pylon and of the beautiful white stone church, and continued my tourist ways, but my mind has often drifted back to Reverend Rundle. Although he served in Canada for only eight years, his pioneering work has left a lasting impact on the indigenous and immigrant peoples. Many generations know Jesus personally because of Rundle's dedication and sacrifice.

Every time I think about that rock in a churchyard in Banff, I wonder what will people remember about my life. Decades from now, what will stand of a remembrance of the work we do? I am sure there will not be a stone monument in a churchyard, nor a campus education building named for me, nor an endowed chair at a university. I want more than that. I was a generation of changed lives. I want to affect a new way of thinking about life's issues to take place. I want the churches to once again become The Church.

In cities and towns ... in townships and counties ... in villages and states ... are indigenous people and immigrants who face similar problems and must make similar decisions. They do not need Robert Rundle; they need you and me to be a missionary of Jesus to their lives.

October 1, 2018

Little Things

When I was in college, a number of ministerial students were obsessed with declaring a "life verse"-a scriptural verse or passage that would serve as a "mission statement" for their lives. I began scouring the pages of holy writ to find one for me. All the usual choices were "taken":

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me";
"He called some to be apostles, and some evangelists...";
"Woe be it unto me if I do not preach the gospel."

But, for me, nothing seemed to fit. At least nothing that I felt was God's call to be "my" mission statement.

Several years passed. I had graduated from college and was in seminary when, during a regular meeting with my mentor, Sam Lovelace, he spoke into my life and into my heart. What he said made perfect sense to me, and I immediately knew my "life verse" and a direction for my life. It is found in Luke 16:10-12 (J. B. Phillips):

"The man who is faithful in the little things will be faithful in the big things, and the man who cheats in the little things will cheat in the big things too. So that if you are not fit to be trusted to deal with the wicked wealth of this world, who will trust you with the true riches? And if you are not trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?"

At first that seemed almost counter-intuitive, but as I pondered it a moment, the truth became apparent. A person who would waste time on television is a person who would waste time in the office. A person who was undisciplined with his eyes is a person who was undisciplined with his hands. A person that could not be trusted with your money is a person who could not be trusted with your wife (or husband). Trustworthiness with a small amount of money (or supervision, or authority, or any assignment) is an indicator of how a large amount will be handled.

Years later, I learned that Billy Graham had formalized that same mode of thinking. He created certain rules for The Billy Graham Association. The Modesto Manifesto (drawn up in a hotel room in Modesto, California) is based on Ephesians 5:15,

"See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise."

Basically, the manifesto contains four "rules." And each of those "rules" stands as a guardian of "little things":

To never exaggerate attendance figures at their meetings.
.. Guard against lying and deceit.

To take only a fixed salary from their organization.
.. Guard against financial thievery.

To never be alone with a woman other than their wife, mother, daughters.
.. Guard against sexual sin.

To never criticize fellow members of the clergy.
.. Guard against pride.

There are times in everyone's life when the "big things" seem so mammoth and so imperative that we are tempted to lose our focus on the importance of the "little things." I have always been comforted by the wisdom of journalist Laura Sullivan:

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

Think about it: Justice, love, and mercy are "little things" that have huge ramifications.

September 24, 2018

The Medium and the Message

A few years ago, while visiting friends in Arizona, I was invited to the home of an elderly couple for an after-church luncheon. After we sat down and said the blessing, the lady of the house started in on a critique of the worship service. I will never understand why some people feel that just having an opinion makes them judge, jury, and executioner for the rest of the world, but this lady was ready to assume the role. She began in a straightforward manner:

"Those young people sitting in front of us did not bring a Bible with them to church. They were following the scripture reading on some device. Don't you think that's just awful, Jim?"

Most people know better than to ask me for my opinion, especially if they expect agreement. But, as they say, she asked for it.

"I am sure that many people were upset when John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar and theologian, first translated the Latin Vulgate into English. The Pope was so upset that, 44 years after Wycliffe's death, his bones were dug up, crushed, and scattered in the river. When John Huss furthered Wycliffe's work, he was burned at the stake in 1415. By the 1450's Johann Gutenberg had invented the printing press and mass production of literature became possible. Gutenberg died penniless.

In 1496, John Colet, an Oxford professor, translated the Bible into English for his students, and later for the public at London's St. Paul's Cathedral. Within a few months the cathedral was filled with 20,000 people inside (and another 20,000 outside) eager to hear God's Word in their own language. His powerful father, the Mayor of London, literally saved his hind.

A lot of people were upset when the Revised Standard Version was published in 1952, and the American Standard Bible in 1971, and the New International Version in 1973, and on and on. But the Word of God has a way of convicting and convincing the hearts of humankind."

I paused in my dissertation to be sure I had her attention, then added:

"So, no. In fact if they're reading the Bible, I do not care if its by print, or digital, or analog, carved on a rock, or whittled on a log. The medium of conveying the Word will always change, as it should, but the message remains the same and the message changes lives.

The man of the house politely changed the subject, and I have never been invited back.

September 17, 2018

Forgive Everything

Virtually every day I say to myself, "I have become my father." When I visited my parents, the discussion centered around a word-for-word account of their latest conversation with one of their many doctors. I became confused about which doctor said what, and the various-and differing-diagnoses each offered, and equally convinced that whatever maladies they possessed were created only to keep up the payments on the doctors' cars. Now that I have a number of doctors to support-along with their car payments-I find myself engaging in the same dialogue with my friends. I usually stop about halfway through the verbatim and say, "I have become my father."

My wife's recent health issues require a number of physician visits and no small number of appropriate exams in various medical facilities. During one such visit, two nurses were preparing her for what we were sure to be an uncomfortable test. To ease the stress, one of the nurses asked me how long we were married. I answered, rather proudly, just over 49 years. The other nurse, who had told us she was a newlywed, then asked, “What’s the secret to a long marriage?” My wife, quick as a wink, responded, "Forgive everything."

I was stunned. I had never heard these words from her mouth, but by the next second I realized the truth of her remark – and the secret to our long marriage.

Certainly I had given her a lot to forgive. Being a pastor for 48 of those years had demanded many long hours, lots of evening meetings, leaving our bed in the middle of the night, rising early for pre-operation visits in hospitals, and lots of stress from parishioners. Trying to balance time with spouse and children and personal growth was an ongoing struggle at which I was often unsuccessful. I am embarrassed to admit that far too frequently she became the brunt of that stress, frustration, and tension.

The financial stress alone was enough fiscally to cripple many couples. We started young and fresh, with so many college loans we often said that our mutual debt was all that was keeping us together. Little did we know that the sheer cost of raising a child, maintaining an automobile (two cars were years in the future), and putting aside anything for savings would be nearly debilitating.

We have developed a way at naming our mistakes: buying a set of out-of-date encyclopedias (yes, they were hardback books back then) was the "idiot-move" of 1975, and that purchase of a Ford Granada was the "idiot-move" of 1983.

Through it all, she found a way to shore up our family: she parlayed her college education (with two – yes, two – master degrees) into plum jobs in the corporate world that kept a pack of wolves from our door, then came home every night to cook gourmet meals, handle all the laundry, clean the house, and close out the evening by reading an entire library of books to our daughter. She did all this while I am at some inane church board meeting haggling over how to spend $45. Now that I am retired, I keep the house, do the laundry, and handle the cooking. It is all I can manage. If I had to work 40 hours a week on top of that, I would collapse from exhaustion.

So, yes, I was completely bowled over by her quick response. As I thought about it, however, I realized that it was not "quick" at all. It was a maxim she's been living by for 49 years: "Forgive everything."

September 10, 2018

Sacred Streets

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

Over the course of those 22 years I have lived in Battle Creek, I have become an unabashed promoter of this great city. I have read numerous books on the city's founding, how it was named (it was first called Waupakisko – "River of Blood"), how it became the home of suffragette Sojourner Truth, the coming of the Seventh-Day Adventists, and eventually the home of -at one time- 105 different breakfast food companies.

I believe that I have been on virtually every street in the city, from seven-figure homes on the south side, to four-figure homes on the west end; from every suburb as far east as Richland and as far west as Marshall. As I called on church visitors, I have entered homes that were palatial, with a separate room for dining, another for reading, another for television, and several large bathrooms to choose from. I remember an elderly lady who sat, ate, and slept in one room with only a small closet that held a toilet. One family raised eight children in a two-bedroom home. There was an indoor toilet, but Saturday night baths were taken in a galvanized tub on the kitchen floor. The two oldest boys slept on the back porch - summer and winter - and the youngest girl curled up on the sofa until the night before her wedding.

Though retired from pastoral ministry for more than five years, I still drive these streets - traveling to doctors and veterinarians, escorting families to cemeteries, shopping for groceries, and cruising for "the ultimate cappuccino." I pass different places - a house where I shared a cup of coffee, or a home where I counseled a bereaved family, or an apartment where a child ran away - and think about those moments. I can still picture the room, the color of the coffee cup, and the tears on the faces. My drive down these streets offers me an opportunity to turn off the radio and pray. I even pray for the places - the people who have moved away, and the people who have yet to arrive.

The people I knew may not live there now - twenty-two years brings about many changes - but their lives are still real to me. Since those moments I was with them, they have experienced success and failures, joys and pains, gains and losses. I have come to realize that they, too, are part of the history of this city - and part of the history of God working out His plan with His people. I would like to think I was a small part in that history.

As I pass those places, I also think of many other places - the houses I have not entered, the apartments that remain empty - and I offer a prayer for them as well. At a highway overpass I think of those who make their home in its shade. At the hospital I think of those who use that place to transition from sickness to health, or to another realm. At apartment complexes I pray for those who hope to transition of better housing, and for those caught in a web of systematic poverty.

Perhaps I should drive even more slowly through these sacred streets, and make my thoughts about prayer, and my deeds for all God's people.

September 4, 2018

New Cohorts Launching Soon!

Hi everyone,

Take a moment to hear my heart about our upcoming Cohorts in the short video below. We are so excited about being able to help you and your church launch new life! We believe that it pleases God when like-minded people get together with a common goal, a high level of commitment, and a desire to advance the Kingdom of Christ. Great things are going to happen!


For more information, check out our website. There you will find applications for our three different Cohort tracks. Feel free to email me back with any questions you may have.

Rev. Tom Planck serves as the Chief Catalyst with Healthy Growing Churches

August 27, 2018

So, What Is Your Story?

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

I clearly remember the moment I understood what it meant to have a Savior, and how I felt about the cleansing that New Life brought me. I wanted to share that feeling with the whole world. I did not understand why everyone would not want to have their sins forgiven and life transformed.

When I approached a friend with my news, I was frustrated at trying to convert my certainty into his questions, and my emotions into his experience. I discovered that Christianity had its own language that is often not understood or sometimes misunderstood by non-believers. Additionally, Christians speak to non-Christians from a cross-cultural divide. I very quickly discovered that I needed help in learning how to share my faith.

Through the years a number of techniques have been developed with varying degrees of success. Some methods were developed with certain specific approaches in mind. Charles Tarr, when he was working for the Board of Church Extension and Home Mission, developed a flip-chart explaining the steps necessary to conversion. Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ, developed the Four Spiritual Laws, designed perfectly for drawing stick figures in the sand of the beaches of Spring Break. D. James Kennedy wrote a book on Evangelism Explosion, then refined it unto the third edition.

I paid for my college education while performing a number of jobs: waiter, dishwasher, dockhand, ditch-digger, short-order cook, and best of all encyclopedia salesman. In that last job I did "cold calls" walking down the street, knocking on every door, trying to get my foot in the door, my books on the table, and their signature on the dotted line. I learned more doing that job than all the others combined.

I learned, standing at their door, that I had mere seconds to get their attention, speak to their needs, and get them interested in my product. Once inside their house, I had minutes, not hours, to tell the story in such a way that it related to people I had just met, and convince them to spend an outlandish sum of money on the future of their children.

I later learned that this quick explanation was referred to as an elevator talk the encapsulation of a program in the space of less than a minute. Local lore tells us that Battle Creek native W.K. Kellogg would pull a financier aside at a gathering, ask for a minute of his time, and, sixty seconds later, have thousands of dollars in his pocket. Yes, he was that good.

It would seem to me that one of the pastor's needed skills is the ability to "tell your story" in such a way that it becomes "their story," and to do it as succinctly as possible. Then ... teach the people of your congregation the same skill. It may not be easy, but that is how lives are changed.

August 20, 2018

Switching Hats

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

I read a book about fifty years ago (and, yes, I have read a few others since then) by Robert K. Hudnut entitled "Surprised by God." It is an easy read, mainly composed of a few sentences – sometimes paragraphs – of random thoughts and insights of a pastor in his daily life. In those early days of ministry, I did not fully grasp all the lessons the book communicated, but as the years have passed I have seen the wisdom of the words.

I was particularly struck about how the book was divided into sections. In fact, I remember that aspect of the book most clearly. The sections were, as I recall:

"Pastor, Preacher, Priest, Person."

Most clergy will admit that we wear many "hats."


The longer I have lived, the more I’ve come to appreciate Rev. Hudnut helping me to define my role and understand which "hat" I’m wearing at any given time. In fact, I have found that when I have forgotten that issue is when confusion came into my ministry and discord came into my relationships.

For example, I have discovered that, for me, when I remember that during weddings, funerals, baptisms, and family dedications, my primary role is that of "priest." During those times, I am a representative of the spiritual aspect of life and the divine elements of our human transitions.

On Sundays, I am a "pastor" before and after the worship service, a “priest” during the worship, and a “preacher” during the sermon. There are always those who will want my Sundays to be about being a "counselor" or "administrator" or "facilitator." When I fall into that trap, I am bringing stress into my life and robbing my parish of the best I have to offer.

When I fail to schedule my time appropriately, I find that I send and receive calls and texts during mealtimes and times for family, as well as time for myself. When I send calls and texts after a reasonable hour, I disturb the family time of my parishioners. When I fail to turn off the phone – and the television – I discover that my family gets the "leftovers" of my stamina and become secondary in my consideration.

During any given day pastors switch “hats” multiple times. That is part and parcel of our calling. When we wear more than one at a time, however, we not only fail to do our job well, but we look ridiculous while doing it.

August 13, 2018


Dr. William Jones, State Pastor, Church of God in Michigan

When I graduated from Seminary, I had one vision...I was going to be a pastor. If you were to ask me, are you going to be a pastor of a large church? small church? city church? rural church? My answer would have been I do not know! My sense of call was strong but my vision was short. The Lord called me to a small rural church. We did not make much money but the people promised we would have a roof over our heads and we would not go hungry. They more than fulfilled their promise. When we began at this incredible church, we realized the church had wounds that needed to be healed and a new vision to provide hope for the future. The healing took a lot of love and over time it came. The vision of a new future was tougher for me. Again, my vision was I was going to be a pastor...and that I was doing. I quickly learned that they needed a vision and I was unsure how to help them get it.

I was young and theologically prepared but I was not prepared to form a vision. As I look back now I realize God gave us a vision, I just did not recognize it. I heard often that we could not do something because we were a small/poor congregation. I remember saying many times, we may be small but we are not going to act small. What I meant was that what we did do, we were going to do well...and we did. What I meant was that if a need arose, we would try to meet it...and we did. We were not going to be a wall flower church, but one that was involved in the community; doing our best to make a difference for Christ's sake. I did not realize then that these simple statements did comprise a vision.

Now I look fondly back on those days as we grew. We did nothing that was world changing, yet we grew by fulfilling those few statements. Over nine years there we built a beautiful new facility, and grew to be as large as 80% of the churches in America. God gave us a vision, and I did not know it. Looking back I am grateful for this leading. Now I teach vision for Institute for Servant Leadership (iSL). And, of course, because I am old and more astute, I make it more complicated! But if you are looking for a vision for your congregation here are some questions to answer ...

  1. What are the strengths of our church?
  2. What are the needs of our congregation?
  3. What are the needs of our community?
  4. What are the passions of the people God has given me?
  5. What is one big thing our congregation can begin doing to meld our Strengths and Passions with the needs of the congregation and community, with the primary focus on the community?

Begin discussing these questions with your leaders. When they figure it out, begin communicating this corporate vision with your congregation. Figure out what you will need to quit doing to accomplish that vision and what you need to begin doing to accomplish that vision. Make it simple and be faithful to keep that vision primary. Perhaps like me when I was pretty visionless, God will do something miraculous because you are attempting to do something great for Him out of your love for Christ and community!

August 6, 2018


Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

I collect trivia the same way folks collect matchbox toys, or ceramic frogs, or ... horses, but that's another problem. My wife says my mind is a warehouse of useless information. Like: James Garfield was not only ambidextrous, but he could write different sentences at the same time – one in Latin and the other in Greek. How’s that for trivia? My wife says it’s sometimes difficult to have a conversation with me because of my affection for trivia. When a group is speaking about politics, I'll be the one who interrupts with, "...and that reminds me of James Garfield..."

Regrettably, the Church that Jesus bled and died for is no different. Organizational and administrative forces seem compelled to insert the trivial junk into the cache of crucial jewels, and then attempt to tell everyone that the trivial is the crucial. With a church in crisis, focusing on trivial tidbits creates alienation, not reconciliation, and creates the purchase of choir robes on equal footing with preparing medical missionaries. With a church in crisis, a focus on the trivia causes a concentration on administrative details rather than gospel imperatives. Every organizational meeting attended and every paper printed is a trivialization of the true mission of the church. When "trivia" is printed in bold, italicized, underlined capital letters, the church dilutes the saving blood of Jesus Christ.

This can occur in virtually every scenario, from a denominational hierarchy to a congregational board, from a missionary meeting to a small group. I shudder to think how many meetings I've sat in when a group of unprepared and uninformed people spent 45 minutes trying to agree on how to spend $35. The important numbers in that meeting should not have been $35, but the fact that, during that same 45 minutes, 225 babies were born hungry and 90 people died. Since church is in the business of transforming lives by the power of God's grace, anything less is simply the rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

Ecclesiastical trivialization does create. It creates a decline in attendance, seminary preparation, purpose, direction, tithing, and support. It creates a clarion call that rings out, "God calls us to give more money!" not for any specific mission, but to shore up the crumbling foundation of a church that is built on trivia rather than mission; where organizational bylaws and the repetition of outdated programs become more important than entering communities compelled by the message of Jesus. Trivialization puts the faith of the ages on an equal footing as an organization model.

Christian leadership is needed as never before to guide believers out of the morass of trivia into a renewed commitment to the true mission of the church.

Speaking of leaders, did you know about James Garfield…?

July 16, 2018

Pastoral Care

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

I was pastoring a very small congregation that was deeply divided along economic and societal boundaries, and it seemed as though I couldn’t do anything right. Many people in the congregation were mean-spirited and strongly opinionated. Several were pathological liars and manipulators. It was the most difficult church I ever pastored.

I confided my frustration to Carlisle Driggers, a Baptist (SBC) pastor in the same town, who offered a word of counsel:

“When there is congregational trouble, increase pastoral care.”

My response:

"That’s seems too simplistic."

He explained,

"There’s nothing simplistic about it. Pastoral care is more than making visitation to homes, hospitals, and care facilities. And it’s more than listening to their complaints about the church, the board, or the pastor. Pastoral care is understanding the basis of their needs – emotionally and spiritually."

He then said four words that I have repeated often:

"Hurt people hurt people."

Through the years, I have found great wisdom in his words. And, yes, there is nothing simple about it. A woman who lost her child is plagued by memories of every harsh word she uttered to that child. A man who failed at business lives with the regret of every financial error he made. Our pews our filled with hurting people who have experienced abortions and addictions; who have estranged relationships within their families, children, parents, and in-laws. Mention the word "regret" in any conversation (or sermon), and mental images race across our minds of errors of words or actions.

Carlisle displayed a pastor’s heart when he said,

"Hurt people fill our pews, our boards, and our families. Is it any wonder that they hurt others? That’s the only type of behavior they know."

I took his advice. I increased pastoral care. Yes, I visited more, and moved more slowly through groups of people during times of fellowship. I listened to words of complaint, but I also asked more questions. I came to understand the regrets, pain, and hurts that my people were living with every day.

My sermons focused on the words of scripture that not only spoke of pain, but also taught how to remedy it. I learned people responded to words like "guilt" and "shame" much differently than the word "sin." "Sin" was a theological word that belonged in church; "guilt" and "shame" were experiential words that were a part of their lives.

Carlisle went on to become an executive with the Southern Baptist Convention, and served as a State Pastor in South Carolina. He retired to Georgia where he passed away about six months ago. We maintained a correspondence to the end. When I reminded him of his "hurt people hurt people" phrase, he chuckled and said he did not originate the saying, but agreed with its message. I think of Carlisle often, and will always remember what he taught me about pastoral care.

July 23, 2018


Dr. William Jones, State Pastor, Church of God in Michigan

Every Pastor is called to do funerals. They can be a significant building block for the church. I always made contact, early on, with the funeral directors of my area, letting them know I was available, what my funeral services were like both in the Funeral Home and at the Church, and making myself available to do services for those without a home congregation. I have seen many persons come to Christ because I ministered well to them in this time of crisis. Following is a primer on Funeral Basics.

Before the Funeral

  • Meet with the family as soon as possible both to pray and get them to talk about their deceased loved one. This often provides the meat of your funeral message.
  • Ask if the Family would like the Church to provide a Funeral Meal.
  • Ask if anyone else will be sharing in the Funeral.
  • If the deceased has a personal Bible, ask to see it. There may be significant passages marked, or other meaningful readings you could use in your message. Be sure to return the Bible.
  • Ask if the family would like you to be with them when they meet with the Funeral Director. Some do and others do not.
  • Find out from the Funeral Director if there will be committal at the graveside or in the Chapel/Sanctuary.
  • Find out from the Funeral director if there will be a military or fraternal ceremony at the graveside or elsewhere.

At the Funeral

  1. Be there early to check signals with the Funeral Director and be available for any family members who may want to talk.
  2. Keep your scripture readings and message within a 30-minute time span. 20 minutes is better.
  3. Use what you learned from your family visit to make the message personal.
  4. If, as far as you know, the deceased was not a Christian, never say they are in hell or lost. You are not God, and it provides no comfort for the family.
  5. Remember you are there to comfort the family and point them to Jesus.
  6. Stay with the casket until it is put in the hearse. Be there for the closing and escort it to the hearse.
  7. Tell the Funeral Director ahead of time if you are driving or riding in the hearse.

At the Cemetery

  1. Go to the rear of the hearse to escort the deceased.
  2. Lead the casket and pallbearers to the graveside avoiding getting in the way.
  3. Be cautious standing too close to the Graveside, earth can give way.
  4. Stand at the Head of the Casket to do the committal. This should include some scripture, perhaps a poem, a committal, and a benediction.
  5. Announce before turning things back to the Funeral Director if there is a meal to follow.

Within two weeks after the funeral

  1. A couple of phone calls to the closes family member(s) to offer support is good.
  2. A visit after the two weeks can be powerful.

In all cases, the more professionally and respectfully you present yourself, the greater your impact on the family, and all those who attend.

July 16, 2018

No Secrets

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

Last week’s column of forgiveness sparked a number of comments from Michigan pastors. One of them in particular suggested I expand on the topic. One of his parishioners, he said, was confronted with sinful behavior by another congregant. It was an embarrassing, even humiliating, experience. A few weeks later, the person came to the altar rail during the invitation. As the pastor began praying with the penitent, he asked this question: “What do I do after I ask the Lord to forgive me?”

I suspect there are many who are asking that question – on both sides of the altar rail. All of us regret some word or action or attitude, and moan in remorse. All of us are aware of many of the places where our action – or lack of action – has caused betrayal or pain to others.

How do we help our congregational members to move past those feelings of deep regret?

We could admonish them to “forgive and forget,” but that advice is downright unhealthy. To forget the wrongs we have suffered – or have caused others to suffer – is to lose our perspective on our personal history. In many cases, we’re trying to create a less distressing and disappointing past. There is a fear of facing the past and being overwhelmed by pain, but by “forgetting,” we never taste the goodness of God’s forgiveness – both for our own sin and for the sins of those who have wronged us. True forgiveness often deepens internal passion and sorrow, and is a powerful agent in the process that can transform both the forgiver and the forgiven. True forgiveness pierces a hardened, defensive heart with redemptive kindness and grace. In that way, rather than forgetting the pain, we are remembering the mercy.

One pastor suggested an approach that can create congregational healing: public confession. Too often within the life of the church we practice the illusion of perfection. Because we are a holiness people, we disavow any presence of sin in our midst, when in fact it is always present.

There was a lady in a former congregation (I’m sure there’s one like her in yours), who would rise during testimonies to declare that she was “saved and sanctified” and that “sin had no hold over her.” It was all I could to not laugh out loud. I – along with the congregation – knew that her evil tongue had lashed the reputations of many of those beside her. Yet we allowed her the illusion of perfection and helped her hide her sin from her own consciousness. She surely must have known of her actions, but felt she could never confess it and still be a believer in holiness.

If I’ve learned anything in over seven decades, it is that there are no secrets, only facts that have not yet become known. Public confession can be tricky and must be handled delicately, and only regarding certain situations where no additional harm comes to others, but it can be a way to resolve interpersonal resentments and restore congregational health.

Perhaps your experiences in the practice of forgiveness can be helpful to others. Do you have a story to tell that can be relayed to your colleagues?

July 9, 2018

Pick a Topic

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

I am sure every preacher has a hidden storehouse full of “old preacher jokes.” The most often-used is prefaced by the question to the preacher, “What are you going to preach about?” and the preacher responds, “About 30 minutes.” Variations are abundant. “What are you preaching on?” Response: “The platform.”

For more than 40 years, I have preached Sunday after Sunday … in the early days it was three times a week – twice on Sunday and a Wednesday meditation. I’ve covered every book of the Bible and virtually every topic found in the concordance – some of them more than a few times.

There have been different responses to my sermons over the years, running the gamut from “Why didn’t you preach longer?” to “I didn’t understand a word you said.” With some responses, you laugh, and with others you just have to shake your head, and then do it all over again next week.

I have, however, paid particular attention to people who want to talk specifically about the message. And there’s one topic, more than any other that the majority of people invariably want to discuss: forgiveness.

It seems to be a universal topic … with many avenues to explore, and not just the forgiveness that Jesus offers. Indeed, I’ve found that one of the reasons many people cannot accept God’s forgiveness is that they cannot forgive themselves, and they find it, therefore, increasingly difficult to forgive others.

We all – clergy and laity – live with deep regrets – foolish mistakes and tremendous blunders, and we all have suffered the hurt, humiliation, and betrayal of others. When we harbor anger and grief for what others have done to us, we, therefore, realize that our own words and actions are difficult for others to forgive, and we often don’t forgive ourselves. Seen in that setting, the presence – and forgiveness – of a Savior seems nigh onto impossible for many.

Through these experiences, I’ve learned three lessons about preaching on forgiveness:

  • Preach a series of messages on forgiveness. One is never enough.
  • Announce the upcoming series. Your attendance will increase. Trust me on this.
  • Follow up the sermons with discussions. Use small groups, mid-week services, discussion questions, and additional scriptural references.

Perhaps the most important lesson:

  • Immerse yourself in the understanding and experience of forgiveness.

June 25, 2018


Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

The concept of fasting is as old as the ages. Primitive cultures were often forced to do without food in the weeks leading up to the harvest as food storages were ebbing away. Fasting also occurred among Native Americans when bison and other nutrition waned. This “forced” fasting eventually came to be ritualized and compulsory in many societies, and other rituals – dances, prayers, pilgrimages – became associated with the fasting. Eventually the fasting became a celebratory event – a means of remembrance; in much the same way as feasting was a celebration.

To modern Christians it has become a means of denying oneself something in order to focus on something else. The pangs of hunger serve as a reminder of the suffering of others, or the call to prayer, or … fill in the blank.

I have found wisdom in the words of Richard J. Foster. His writing on the spiritual disciplines has been prolific and he first introduced me to the concept of fasting in areas other than food. He suggests that as we drive on highways, we “fast” from billboards. Indeed, our interstates – as well as state and county roads – have become avenues of advertisements. This led me to “fast” from magazines, which have become experts at “hiding” advertisements among other articles. Even some newspapers print long advertisements as though they were legitimate news, with only the word “advertisement” hidden somewhere in the fine print.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter teaches Clarice Starling, “We covet what we see.” Those words may not be scripture, but they contain scriptural truth. My father once saw the ad for a car so ugly that – his words – “Only a blind man would buy that car.” I chuckled, but I admit that a barrel full of safety and mileage features would not be purchased if placed inside the body of an Armored Personnel Carrier. We want a car that “looks” nice.

“We covet what we see.” Our eyes become our enemies. They lead us to unjust comparisons to others, to lusts of the flesh, to financial insolvency, to spiritual lethargy.

And, yes, our expanding waistlines still provide a solid argument for fasting from certain foods, but our gluttonous lifestyle bespeaks a need to fast from advertisements as well.

June 18, 2018

Final Wishes

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

A recent visit with my doctor confirmed my diagnosis. It’s terminal. His words hit me like a brick:

“You’re dying. There’s nothing medical science can do. Put your affairs in order.”

I asked him if the disease had some specificity…some medical terminology…some “name.” He said, “Life.”

My doctor calls that “medical humor.”

But he’s right. I’m dying. We are all. From the moment we were born our cells began a growth process and then a death process. Oh, we fight it. Look at any “senior” and you’ll see their eyeglasses, their hearing aids, and their canes. Many of them have artificial knees, hips, and shoulders. Some “excess” parts have been removed and some new ones implanted. We can control the heart with pacemakers; straighten legs with braces, and control obesity with pills and “cool-wave sculpting.” Our bionics makes us like the $6 million man and woman…because it seems we pay that amount for our medical bills.

So, at my doctor’s suggestion, I visited my lawyer. We needed to update our “patient advocate designation” and “general durable power of attorney” documents. We thought it would be a good time to also update our General Will.

We decided that along with a number of specific instructions to our Executor, we were going to leave a financial gift to The Church of God in Michigan. Please understand, this money won’t be enough to underwrite a professor’s chair at Harvard, but it will be a tithe of the money left after the disposal of our real and general property.

It’s been our experience that congregations go through life-cycles – just like humans – from birth to death, but larger institutions – judicatories, colleges, etc. – tend to live longer and positively affect a greater number of people. Since my wife and I have served Michigan and Michigan congregations for more than 25 years, it seems appropriate for us to help their good work continue.

And, yes, there are many other fine and worthy institutions – Children of Promise, Institute for Servant Leadership, Heart Missionary Training, Earthen Vessels Ministry, Christians Broadcasting Hope, as well as local and national hospitals and colleges – that would benefit from financial contributions.

As for our family, our new will guarantees our beneficiaries to receive what they value, but a tithe of that amount will benefit what we value. We are confident Michigan leaders – current and future – will continue the values and ministries that are beneficial to our pastors and congregations.

What do you value? What do you want to see continue and thrive? Then put your money where your values are…because you’re going to die. It’s inevitable.

June 11, 2018

Thoughts on Preaching

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

Dr. William Jones, State Pastor, Church of God in Michigan

Preaching is such an interesting combination of art, skill, preparation, and delivery. No preacher is exactly like any other. We all have our strengths and idiosyncrasies. The story is told of a person who was critical of a Pastor’s preaching. He told the Pastor, “Your preaching is such a waste of time. I cannot remember what you preached on three weeks ago…I can’t even remember your text.” The wise preacher said, “You know I can’t remember what I had for supper three weeks ago, but I know I went away filled.”

I have some random thoughts about this odd endeavor we call preaching.

I have become convinced that preaching the truth is not enough. It is important but not enough. I try to always approach a sermon trying to answer three questions:

What do I want them to know?
What do I want them to do?
What are the next steps I want them to take? (I stole these questions from Andy Stanley!)

I have also become convinced that I must touch the heart of the hearer as well as the head of the hearer. People remember more if they not only learned but were moved emotionally by what they heard.

I have learned from that great orator, Rev. James Horn, that people remember more if I include humor. Pastor Horn is a pretty deep guy, but he has learned over the many years that he has been preaching that people need to smile, laugh, and enjoy what they are hearing. Recently, Rev. Horn has been the interim Pastor at Alma. I heard that people are inviting their friends to church because he has made the service so interesting!

Recently I preached at one of our newest congregations: First Church-Stevensville. What an exciting place. They serve the best coffee in town, and their worship moved my heart. I was asked to preach on a core value of this church. “Culturally Relevant, Biblically Based Teaching.” This value emphasizes that our preaching and teaching needs to speak to real life experiences and circumstances. It is fine to teach the “eschatological implications of the apocalyptic hermeneutic for the book of Zechariah” in Seminary, but real people need practical handles on how to live faithfully in a world that opposes and ignores the God of the universe. They need help understanding how God is with them no matter what they face. The need practical handles on how to love their enemy. Andy Stanley in his book Deep and Wide, states,

“God’s grace is only as visible as his truth is clear. The content of our Bible teaching must be helpful, not simply true. Truth without handles is static. Truth with next steps grows people’s faith.” (Deep and Wide, p. 159, Zondervan)

Finally, let me touch on a touchy subject: Length! I have come to believe that it is not the length of a message but its impact that is critical. The old adage states that “the mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” The impact of a good message can be lost because the preacher went too long. My son and I were at a preaching event recently where the preacher had three opportunities to speak. His first sermon was an hour long. My son turned to me and asked, “did anyone tell him he has 3 opportunities to speak? It seems like he preached three sermons in the last hour.” Dr. James Earl Massey taught me to preach. I remember his clear teaching:

“If you can’t get the message across in 25 minutes, you cannot get it across in 50 minutes.”

In our society that is so time conscious, we as pastors need to be aware of our listeners attention span.

Well, those are my thoughts on Direction, Heart, Humor, Cultural relevance, and Length.

Look forward to hearing from you.

June 4, 2018

The Magic Moment

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

When retired pastors get together we do the usual stuff that other old folk do: we talk about doctor visits and health concerns, thinning hair and thickening waistlines, early suppers and loss of sleep. When we “talk shop” to one another we will discuss what worked and what didn’t, who helped and who hindered, what we did right, and – ultimately – we’ll get around to the things we did wrong. One of the touchstones of “what we did right” and “what we did wrong” will ultimately lead to a discussion of tenure; the length of pastorates. The conversation will include sentences such as:

“Did we leave too soon?”
“Did we stay too long?”
“Looking back, I should have left two years earlier.”
“Looking back, I should have stayed through that crisis.”

I confess that I’m a proponent of longer pastorates. I’ve stayed in my earlier pastorates about three years each, but my last two parishes were 17 years each. Looking back and wishing I could do it over, I would have stayed longer. In fact, I should have stayed longer.

I was like the minister John Maxwell used to talk about, who, after 20 years in ministry had been in five congregations and stayed only four years in each church. He did not, according to Rev. Maxwell, have 20 years of experience; he had four years of experience – five times.

Each time I left early I thought I was gaining experience. Perhaps I enjoyed the thrill of being courted by another congregation, or the tears when I left my current church. Those were learning experiences, to be sure, but I question the value of them in the broader scope of ministry. Those moments are – ultimately – purely selfish experiences.

Most of my colleagues who endured bitter days near the end of their tenure sometimes wish they had left sooner. But such a rationale was only because it would decrease some personal pain, and not because it was in the best interest of the congregation.

When I’m asked for advice on how to discern that “magic moment” when one should move on to greener pastures, I often find myself quoting my late mentor, Sam Lovelace: “If you believe God called you to a congregation, then verify that call by asking exactly what it is He called you to do in that congregation. If God called you to that church…to accomplish that goal…you can’t believe God has released you from that assignment until that goal is accomplished.”

That’s the magic moment!

May 29, 2018

Precious Memories

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

In the summer of 1958 — a l-o-n-g time ago — I was attending a youth camp in southern Indiana. The speaker for the week was an Anderson College student who was originally from Egypt. His name was Roland Gani. Throughout that week he became a friend to all the kids and consistently presented a gospel message at vesper services. In July 1958, under the preaching of Roland Gani, I accepted Jesus as my savior.

As an exchange student, Roland Gani spent his summer traveling around the Midwest, and found himself the next month visiting in my home in New Albany, Indiana. Under an oak tree in my front yard he gave me a stack of cards. On one side of each card was a scripture passage and on the other side was book, chapter and verse that was cited. I soon learned this was from a group called The Navigators.

“Memorize these cards,” Roland told me, “and I’ll see that you get new ones.” I took his words to heart and memorized, then memorized more, and memorized more...and more. It’s been 60 years since that summer and Roland Gani became my life-long friend. He passed away December 21, 2014, when he was 80 years old. I still mourn his loss in my life, and I still am memorizing scripture.

His lessons were new to me, bu t as old as the ages. In Jesus’ day, a Jewish boy a considered a man at his Bar Mizvah, meaning “son of the law.” He would be required to memorize the Torah — 187 chapters, 5,852 verses, 156,058 words. That’s like memorizing Matthew through Second Corinthians. A phenomenal accomplishment; doubling so for a boy of 13 years. The point of the memorization was not to prove memory but to prove an understanding of the Word of God, hence becoming a “son” of the law.

Islam has a similar structure. A hafiz means “memorizer” or “guardian,” and denotes someone who has completely memorized the Qur’an. Interestingly, the word was originally hamil, “one who carries” the message.

In a myriad of societies around the world, memorization of holy texts was important because many early cultures were either illiterate or had no written language. By memorizing and handing down the teaching from generation to generation, authenticity of the culture, traditions, and beliefs of a society could be preserved. The purpose was not purely memorization, but effective transfer of truth.

For 60 years I have practiced memorization of scripture, not for the purpose of rote verbatim, but to transfer the truth of scripture into my life and ministry. And with each passage of scripture that is transferred into my head — and heart — I give honor to Roland Gani, who introduced me to my Savior.

May 21, 2018

Pastoral Grief

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

My email box is flooded with all kinds of articles on the various aspects of a pastor’s life: leadership, preaching, relationships, conventions, books; the list goes on and on. Occasionally there’s a thought or two shared about loneliness or isolation. Perhaps you’ve read one or two. The one aspect of that issue that I haven’t seen addressed deals with a pastor’s “grief.”

We’re all experienced “pastoral grief,” whether or not we identified it as such. Like virtually all of my colleagues, I’ve had my share of “pastoral grief”:

I had thought through a program from inception to conclusion on reaching out to the community, touching lives, and sharing the gospel, only to have one or two traditionalists shoot it down. They believed they were “called of God” to oppose any plan that deviated from the way things were always done. My dream of ministry was not only deferred, but defeated; dead and buried in the graveyard of “We’ve never done that before.”

I had spent countless hours developing a relationship with key leaders, earning their trust, and caring for their needs, only to find myself stabbed in the back by their opposition to a single issue or approach. I not only lost a friend, but I lost the time I invested and the reputation I labored to establish. I still grieve that loss.

After five years of quietly caring for my wife’s mother, suffering from dementia, my wife and I carried on a two-week, 24/7 vigil as she lay dying. On the same day as her death, a congregational member lost a distant relative. The funeral I conducted for her was on the same day as my mother-in-law’s and my family didn’t even get asked if we would like a funeral dinner. That grief has its own special kind of pain.

My list could go on and on, and I’m sure your personal list is just as extensive: the death of a family member, the delinquency of a child, financial setbacks, career missteps, disease of family members, misunderstandings. All are losses, life-changers, mini-deaths, issues of grief.

We would like to believe that our congregations would be as supportive of their pastors as their pastors are supportive of their congregations, and they often are ... they are also often not. And there’s little, if anything, that can be done about it. As pastors, we bear our grief — our deaths — with a bitter blend stoicism and faith. Our wails of pain are often unheard and the salt of our tears only season our own inner selves.

May 14, 2018

Strategic Thinking

Dr. William Jones, State Pastor, Church of God in Michigan

Our life can be so busy that it keeps us from planning ahead. We can find ourselves getting up each morning with a long to-do list already in mind, hoping we can get it all done. One day follows another with another list of things to do. Our lives can become consumed with focusing on what we must do today and at best making a new list for tomorrow. Have you ever felt like Sisyphus who spent his life pushing a stone up a hill, after pushing and failing and trying again, then when he gets the stone to the top of the hill, it was the wrong hill? If possible, we must avoid this at all costs. How can it be avoided?

Strategic Planning!

It is critical for individuals, for families, for businesses, and for Churches to take time on some regular basis to stop pushing the rock, and evaluate why we are pushing the rock, where are we pushing the rock, and what do we want to accomplish once we have the rock where we want it.

Once a quarter get away, leave your phone, take your Bible, a book you want to read, and notebook. Take a day or two. Go with a purpose to think through an area of life or ministry that you work in regularly, and ask God, “where do you want me to take this area of my life?” Don’t work on your list, don’t think about tomorrow, but look to the future, dream, pray, make notes, study and ask God to give you a bigger picture than just what you are doing right now. This can be done as an individual or with a group that is working on the same project. The idea is to look into the future and ask the following questions:

  1. Am I the person, right now, God wants me to be?
  2. Am I moving in the direction God wants me to go?
  3. Ultimately what do I want to accomplish with what I am doing?
  4. How will I know when I have accomplished it?

Without these kind of guidelines, I very likely will push the rock up the wrong hill. Or, I will get tired and the very rock I want moved will roll back over me. Or, I will spend my life pushing a rock but never know the satisfaction of getting the rock where it belongs.

The rock can be one’s: career, finances, ministry, specific ministry, family, dream, walk with Christ… When pushing the rock, which we all do daily, it is impossible to look to the future, to dream or to plan. Strategic Planning is taking the time to look far ahead and begin laying out the who, what, where, why, and how of the future. It is so much more fulfilling when I see the long game and not just what I must do today. There are books written on this process, get one. Do more than just the everyday. Start taking time to Strategically Plan.

May 7, 2018


Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

The Native Americans call it a “medicine bag.” They carried it around their necks or attached to the bicep. It was worn by both genders and served as a reminder of their own strength and particular purpose. The same principle has been used in various cultures around the world and throughout history. These talismans were sometimes a stone, a ring, a bracelet, a charm or amulet. Some were supposed to possess occult powers, but all are said to have a remarkable and powerful influence on the feelings and actions of the wearer.

The ancient Israelites engaged in such practices. When the Israelites ended their sojourn in the wilderness and they crossed over the Jordan, the Lord gave them instructions:

“...tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan...and carry them over with you...”. (Joshua 4:3, NIV)

After the Lord intervened in a battle against the Philistines,

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12, NIV)

We all have a talisman, a medicine bag, an Ebenezer ... a remembrance of where we’ve been and where we’re going. For some of us, there’s a small box in a drawer of our dresser that holds a picture, a ring, a dried flower ... a remembrance of a special time, a certain place, a particular person. Ladies cherish a certain cameo or jewel or photograph, while men are more likely storing away a pebble or ring.

I carry mine around my neck. It’s hidden from view under my shirt, but I feel it against my skin, and I’m always reminded of its presence. It’s a necklace that contains five sterling silver talismans. To understand my necklace is to understand me, for the objects have a remarkable and powerful influence on my feelings and actions.

      The first talisman is a cross composed of two nails. It was purchased in Coventry, England at the Church of St. Michael as a reminder of the peace that can come from conflict.

      The second is an amulet given to me by a dear friend engraved with the date “September 12, 1972 — the date of my ordination — to remind me of my calling.

      The third is an amulet of St. Ignatius, the patron saint of writers, given to me by Richard Foster when we worked together on his book, Prayer.

      The fourth is a widow’s mite, purchased in Israel, to remind me of the principle of generosity is all my living.

      The fifth is the fingerprint of my wife, Susan, to remind me of over fifty years of love and fidelity.

Whether we realize it or not, we all have our own talismans ... our medicine bags ... our amulets ... whether we wear them or store them. Our most precious ones are created by the video cameras between our ears, and we replay the memories that have made us what we are, what we believe, what we value.

I believe that pastors experience many dark days ... probably more than most ... and travel long distances of time without affirmation or complete acceptance. They need — more than most — the power of an Ebenezer to remind them of their strength and purpose ... and the Lord that travels with them through the darkness.

April 30, 2018

Time Of Remembrance

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

One of the ways to increase attendance is to get people in the habit of coming to church. By that I mean, people will come to the church for a “special event”: weddings, funerals, concerts, children’s programs, Christmas cantatas, Easter celebration, Christmas Eve, etc. I’m a believer is having a “big event” at least once a quarter.

One of the “big events” we performed regularly was a “Time of Remembrance” held near the end of November every year. A “Time of Remembrance” is a wonderful way of engaging in congregation-wide pastoral care and it becomes a “big event” that brings visitors to church. Here’s how it works:

  1. Throughout the year, keep a chronological record of deaths of congregational members and their immediate family members. That record would contain the date of death, the deceased name, and, if not a congregational member, their relationship to the congregation. It would look something like this:
    02/02/18 Robert Finnis, father of Dan Finnis
    04/28/18 Lloyd Denny Jr, brother of Mary Erskine
    05/02/18 Mary Wright, grandmother of Charlene Serbantex
    05/05/18 Betty Clark, grandmother of Jill DeLong
    06/25/18 Bill Haroff
    06/28/18 Frank Flint
    07/27/18 Harold Ellis, Brother of Fay Arnett
    08/11/18 Coy Trisket, father of Pat Carpenter & Sue Lindauer
    09/10/18 Lewis Powell, father of DawnLarsen & Christy Galloway
    10/04/18 Richard Heckman
    11/11/18 Paul Murray, father of Mike Murray
  2. In early October, we announce the Time of Remembrance service through all the usual means and media of the church, asking people to give us information about loved ones they lost that year (just in case our records were incomplete). Additionally, we always sent out a letter to those who we knew had lost a loved one. A sample of that letter is at the bottom of this article. The letter explains the service theme and how it will be identical in all the morning worship services. These bereaved members are encouraged to invite other family members to come to church (think “big event”) and participate with them in remembering the loss of their loved ones. We also invite them to bring photographs to be placed in the chancel area before the service begins.
  3. On that Sunday, move the Communion Table to the front of their sanctuary and have a large clay pot filled with soft sand, a large candle that is lit (a tri-wicked candle is best), a supply of long, thin tapers and white, long-stemmed roses (both of which should be twice as many as you need if you have two worship services).
  4. The song service is greatly shortened that Sunday as well as the sermon (we often didn’t include a sermon if the number of names were particularly lengthy).
  5. As the Time of Remembrance began, we read a litany. We change it every few years, but a sample of one is offered below. Since the congregational response was always the same, we rarely printed the litany in the worship folder, but we often included it on the video screen.
  6. We would then read a person to remember, starting with the date of death, the person’s name and, if not a congregational member, we would add that relationship (see listing above). That would be followed by the ringing of a bell — we used the organ.
  7. The family member(s) would come forward (sometimes one person; sometimes a whole family), they would be handed a taper to light off the tri-wicked candle. They then place it in the pot of sand. A family member would be given a white rose and they returned to their seat.
  8. The next name would be read, etc., until the list was completed.
  9. A closing hymn would be sung, usually victoriously and affirming our belief in eternal life.

This was a particularly meaningful service for the bereaved, reminding them that the pastoral staff sincerely care about them throughout the year, not just at the time of the funeral. The hidden blessing was the opportunity it gave all congregants to express — again — their love and support to one another.

Try including a Time of Remembrance in your ecclesiastical calendar this year. Let us know how you do it, and how your people respond.

Litany of Remembrance

Let us share in the Litany of Remembrance. As I read, please respond in unison with the words – “We remember them.”

Leader: Let us remember our loved ones: In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
Leader: In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
Leader: In the opening of buds and in the warmth of spring,
Leader: In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,
Leader: In the rustling of the leaves and the beauty of autumn,
Leader: In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
Leader: When we are weary and in need of strength,
Leader: When we are lost and sick at heart,
Leader: When our spirits soar and we are overwhelmed with joy,
Leader: So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us as we remember them with love

A Time of Remembrance will be a special time when the Church family takes time to remember those among our church family and extended church family who have died. We will take this time, each year, to name and to honor the memory of those in our congregation as well as immediate family members of those in our church family who have died.

We will be remembering your [deceased], and others, on [Date] during both worship services. I hope you, other members of your family, and friends will be available to participate. All names will be read in both services, however, please come and participate in the service of your own choosing. You are not expected to attend both services.

At the appropriate time, words of introduction will be given and the names of each loved one will be read aloud. When a loved one’s name is read, representatives of each family will move to a special table to light a candle in remembrance and in honor of their loved one. This time will include special music and conclude with prayer.

Please RSVP no later than Sunday, [Date] by calling the church office at [telephone]. You are invited to provide a framed picture of your [relationship] to be incorporated into an arrangement of pictures honoring those that we remember. I ask that pictures be brought to the church the week of [Date].

Please note that all names will be read regardless of your ability to participate. However, I do hope that you will be able to experience this event on [Date], and find comfort in this “Time of Remembrance.”

Peace Be With You, [Name], Lead Pastor

April 23, 2018

Whatever Happened to Jesus

Rev. James L. Sparks is the Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God in Battle Creek, Michigan

I clearly remember both under-graduate and graduate level professors teach about the consistency between Genesis 1 and John 1.

Genesis 1:26-27 (KJV).
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, and in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

In the Genesis passage, the name used for God was “Elohim,” a plural rendering of the godhead, thus making use of the plural reference to “us” and “our” throughout the passage.

In the gospel writer’s opening words, he refers to Jesus as the “Word” and underscores the Genesis account.

John 1:1-2 (NIV)
“In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God.”

The “Elohim” terminology is a key element in our understanding of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — all three manifestations of the single Godhead. Yet, somewhere between the seeker-friendly services and worship-wars, we’ve come to speak less and less about “Jesus,” and more and more about “God”; less and less about “the Savior,” and more and more about “the Father.” We seem to invite the Holy Spirit into our services and sing many songs about God. But ... whatever happened to Jesus?

Yet it is Jesus who is named the head of the Church, the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15); the earthly model of love and compassion, help and healing. It is Jesus who is the One who continually teaches us the rudiments of life and living. It is Jesus who speaks to our hearts with parables and illustrations that are practical and understandable. It is Jesus who speaks to our minds with clarity by confronting the hypocrisy of religion instead of relationships. It is Jesus who invites, includes, and inspires us to be a part of His redemptive work among human kind.

When we use the term “God” or “Father,” our listeners can create their own — and often unclear — images that those terms denote. But “Jesus” — through His own words and actions — presents a crystal clear image of what God is all about. Perhaps we should use “Jesus” more frequently.

April 16, 2018


Rev. Rob Butler is Lead Pastor of West Court Street Church of God in Flint, Michigan.

It’s a resource that is a fundamental human right. A resource that we are not willing to see our neighbors lack. That’s why at West Court Street Church of God, we have been a Point of Distribution for nearly the entire length of the water crisis in Flint. With the recent decision made by the state government, every POD location is being closed once the purchased water runs out. The estimate as of this morning is that the water will be gone by Friday, April 13th.

We are going to continue to be the beacon of light we have been called to be in Flint. Starting immediately, we will be accepting donations towards our Neighbors First Water program. Neighbors First is a value system that we have at our church; it’s the humility that Jesus showed us, that we are to mimic. Our neighbors still need clean water; bottle water. So, we are going to give it out.

We are looking to start small – though this is a big issue! We are just today opening up to receive donations (both monetary and cases of bottled water – we are looking into the capacity to receive pallets). In the very near future, we will be opening our facility on Saturdays for a few hours (details to come) to distribute what we have collected – until it’s gone. Until there is no longer a need. Until the LORD tells us otherwise.

If you would like to financially contribute towards Neighbors First Water, visit our website at West Court Street Church of God ( and click on the “Make a Donation” button. In the prompts that follow, select from the drop down box “Neighbors First Water” and give as the LORD asks of you! Your funds will be used specifically for the purchase and delivery of water to Flint only!

If you are wanting to partner with us and donate cases of water: Please call our offices at (810) 238-2631. It is our intention to line our halls with water to ensure our community has what it needs!

Rev. Rob Butler, Lead Pastor of West Court Street Church of God in Flint, Michigan

Email your comments and thoughts to Rob.

April 9, 2018

Learning to Do Ministry

The Rev. Dr. Robert O. Dulin, Jr. is Pastor Emeritus of Metropolitan Church of God in Detroit and Southeastern Regional Pastor for the Church of God in Michigan

One of my life’s greatest joys was watching my children learn to walk. First they crawled. Then they flashed a smile of success when they discovered they could stand up by holding onto the edge of the coffee table. Then steadying themselves by holding onto the coffee table, pausing every now and then to give their tremulous legs a break, they edged their way around the coffee table to where I was – on my knees beckoning them with gestures of encouragement: “You can do this”. As they inched their way closer to me, I would slowly back away from the coffee table giving them an opportunity to embrace a new challenge; to take a risk, to put forth the effort to walk without the coffee table’s steadying influence.

My children seemed to think that: “Since My Father believes I can walk, then I believe I can walk”. With this belief and without the assistance of the coffee table they would take one, two, maybe three steps and then fall into my waiting hands: Mission accomplished – Hey, I can walk! With repeated effort, and courage to risk falling, pausing every now and then to recharge their wobbly legs – along with my encouraging presence – my children learned to walk.

The ministry-learning-curve is long and arduous. It requires taking risks, putting forth effort, growing tired and weary. It involves failing and trying again. It requires trusting that The Father – who called and commissioned us – is ever present to encourage and sustain us as we learn to do ministry.

Learning to do ministry will confront us with burdensome challenges. We will grow tired and weary. There will be numerous temptations to throw in the towel and walk away from it all. But since God called us to this ministry, He will always be present at the other end of the coffee table beckoning us to risk putting forth the effort to pursue our calling. When we grow tired and weary He extends this invitation:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29 NIV).

Every minister owes it to his/her calling – and to themselves – to take advantage of our Lord’s invitation; to work with our Lord to create along the ministry trail plateaus for rest and recuperation; a sabbatical – weekly and yearly.

Ministry is an unending responsibility. Opportunities to do ministry are ubiquitous; even so, we are not super-woman! God did not call us to be super-man. He called us to be faithful to our calling: i.e.

  • to put forth the effort;
  • to trust Him to supply our ministry needs;
  • to guard our need for rest and recuperation; and,

to learn from Jesus how best to do ministry.

A great factor in the art of being a wise minister is the art of finding one’s ministry-rhythm – and learning to stick to it.

Rev. Dr. Robert O. Dulin, Jr., Southeastern Regional Pastor

Email your comments and thoughts to Bob.

April 2, 2018


A Subject Pastors Don’t Talk About

Dr. William Jones, State Pastor, Church of God in Michigan

A few times in my career, I have gone through periods of Spiritual Darkness. What I mean by that is I had times, when I was unable to find God. I did not sense his closeness, and a few times even questioned his existence. What is most disconcerting was that these happened while I was the pastor of a Church. Our Credentials' Ministry may put me on speed dial to make such an admission, but it is true.

It is really hard to admit this even now, because as Pastors, we are to have our spiritual life together. Our people look to us for guidance, encouragement, and wisdom. These times are not pleasant. They come to us through a variety of circumstances. They may be associated with sin in our life that needs to be dealt with, or they can come because of events that lead into depression, or sometimes they come and we cannot even diagnose what caused them…overwork, strife at home, criticism at the Church…the list can be rather long. What do we do when we go through this dry desert of spiritual loneliness? I do not claim to be an expert on the remedy, though I feel some expertise in the desert walk.

First, I tie a knot and hang on. When the three Hebrew boys were about to be thrown into the fiery furnace. Their words to the King encourage me. 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us[c] from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18) They are saying we believe God will deliver us, BUT, if he does not we will not abandon him. That’s tying a knot and holding on.

Second, I make a promise. “God I have trusted you for a long time. As I look back on my life, I see that you have never failed me. Though I do not right now feel your presence or even sense your love, though you slay me, yet will I serve you.”

Third, I hold to truth. Many years ago I read in one of John Maxwell’s books, or maybe it was one of his sermons. He was speaking of going through those times that someone has called the “dark night of the soul.” He made this statement: “Don’t doubt in the darkness what God has made clear in the light.” I hold onto what I know, rather than to what I feel.

I have wondered if God does not allow these periods when we feel shielded from his presence to make us stronger. It is easy to bless God when all is going well, but will my faith hold me when life seems to be upside down. Maybe my faith will falter, but I know, I know, I know he will not fail. He never has…he never will.

Dr. William Jones, State Pastor, Church of God in Michigan

Email your comments and thoughts to Bill.

March 26, 2018


Rev. James L. Sparks, Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God, Battle Creek, Michigan

Almost every area of thinking has it’s “people types”: those who are organized (Type A) and those who aren’t (Type B); those who are introverts and those who are extroverts; those who are young and those who are … er … experienced; those who come into a room and say, “Here I am!” and those who come into a room and say, “There you are!”

I believe that the church has its own “types” as well. These “types” are a result of observing people – primarily church folks – for over 70 years. While these definitions are exactly theological, there are, at least, I believe, accurate.

Type 1: There are those who are entering a crisis. These folks can be identified fairly easily. They are carrying multiple tasks, struggling with time management, and living on the ragged edge – financially, emotionally, or spiritually. Just one more issue; one more problem; one more project – and they are in over their head.

Type 2: There are those who are exiting a crisis. These folks usually be identified by the emotional “whew!” that they emanate. One can almost feel the lightness of their walk, the ease of their talk. Their smile is more frequent and their spirits are lighter … all because a crisis has passed.

Type 3: There are those who are in a crisis. These folks have the proverbial dark cloud over their heads, and the rain is pouring down. Life has become too difficult; the problems too numerous; the issues too complex. Many of these folks are experiencing serious depression … some acutely and some clinically. They can be found in hospital beds – or sitting beside them; in hospice care and funeral homes; in the office of school guidance counselors; in jails and prisons – or in their waiting rooms; on street corners and homeless shelters; in alleys and abandoned buildings.

Type 4: There are those who cause a crisis. This is a unique type of person. I often say these folks have a “soap-opera mentality,” because old soap operas always revolved around a crisis – often several. These people thrive on crises. If there isn’t one, they’ll create it. Their personality dysfunction may center on them being in a position of power to resolve the crisis they created, or a position to damage another person’s reputation because of it. Their basic dysfunction is that they cannot properly function in a non-crisis environment. Pastors especially know who these people are because pastors get the special attention of people causing a crisis. These folks have to call the pastor to referee a knife fight in the neighborhood – just because they want to exercise that power. They will always find another person for the pastor to visit or counsel; another problem for the pastor to solve.

Type 5: There are those who cure a crisis. These are the people we read about in scripture: The prophet who feeds the widow; the steward who invests the talent; the believer who liberates the oppressed; the native who takes in the refugee; the worshiper who practices justice; the disciple who emulates righteousness.

Our planet has plenty of crises; plenty of words of hate; plenty of actions of threat; plenty of potential for violence. God’s Church ought to be the one place where there are people curing a crisis.

Rev. James L. Sparks, Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God, Battle Creek, Michigan

Email your comments and thoughts to Jim.

March 19, 2018

Sunday Mornings

Rev. James L. Sparks, Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God, Battle Creek, Michigan

The lady approached me with her finger wagging in my face and I knew I was in for a lecture. It was a Sunday morning with only a few minutes before I was due to meet with the worship team and enter the sanctuary. It was very tempting to pretend I didn’t see her, but I was an instant too slow and she began her tirade. “Dennis just walked past me and didn’t even speak to me,” she said. “I want you to tell him not to ignore people.”

Now I was faced with a problem. It was easy to say, “Yeah, sure,” and walk away, but she needed to learn a lesson, so I said, “Dennis is our Children’s Pastor. It’s Sunday morning and he’s probably doing his job: caring for children. Unless you’re three feet tall or smaller, he’s being paid to ignore you in order to focus on children.” I paused. “Not everything is about you.” I leaned over, kissed her cheek, and said, “Now I have to gather for my thoughts for worship. I suggest you do the same.” And I walked away.

I can’t count the times my mentor reminded me of the importance of Sundays. He had me memorize the mantra: “A preacher who approaches the pulpit without meticulous preparation of himself and his message is guilty of a blasphemous dereliction of duty.” As preachers, who are also pastors, guard our approach to that task zealously. And it’s not always easy.

One Sunday morning, the praise team was leaving the chancel and I picked up my Bible and prepared to preach. A young lady in the praise team leaned into my ear and said, “I want to talk to you this week.” I quietly said, “Just call me for an appointment.” Then, as she passed by, she said, “I want to tell you why I’m leaving the church.”

The next words out of my mouth were supposed to be the opening words of the sermon. But I couldn’t speak for several minutes. I was flabbergasted. When she later called and came in to see me, I told her why her remark was not only unkind, but rude.

Here’s my point: people need to be taught. No person enters a group knowing the rules of community; a club, a school, a group...or a church. Far too many folks have been allowed to speak without understanding how their words affect others. They need to be taught.

I’m not convinced that every person needs to be confronted about every inappropriate behavior, but the pastor who doesn’t protect himself and his congregation during the act of worship is “guilty of a blasphemous dereliction of duty.”

Rev. James L. Sparks, Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God, Battle Creek, Michigan

Email your comments and thoughts to Jim.

March 12, 2018

Staff Meetings

Rev. James L. Sparks, Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God, Battle Creek, Michigan

I was in pastoral ministry for seven years before I had an opportunity to “down-shift” from the pastor of a small congregation to an associate position of a large, multi-staff church. In that position I learned many lessons: what to do, and what not to do. One of the eye-opening experiences was the huge blessing of weekly staff meetings. Over the course of the past two weeks, three pastors have approached me (in person, by telephone, and by email), wanting to know more about the “nuts-and-bolts” of staff meetings. Allow me to repeat, via this medium, what I shared through those media, step-by-step.”

  1. Don’t wait until you become a “large” church. Staff meetings are one of the ways you become a large church. Any size congregation can have a weekly – or bi-weekly – meeting of the pastor and secretary. It’s also helpful to include janitorial and maintenance people (to be sure that certain rooms are set up in certain ways for certain events), and should include key ministry leaders.

  2. Set a date for the meeting with a firm start time and end time. This may be weekly or less frequently, but it should be consistent and nothing takes precedent over that meeting. Yes, emergencies occur and people go on vacation, but that time and place needs to be given priority. Yes, Jesus said that a person may have to get his donkey out of the ditch on the Sabbath, but if the donkey is always in the ditch, the person ought to get a new donkey or fill up the ditch. Make the staff time important and the staff meeting will become important. Be sure to start the meeting on time and end it by – or before – the announced ending time. This not only teaches promptness of the staff but allows them to make other appointments during the day. Most meetings can be completed in an hour and a half, at the most two hours.
  3. One of the great values of a staff meeting is what is called “group-think.” When a number of folks sit down to talk about an idea one person has, what often happens is that the idea expands, becomes clearer, and better. An added value is that when questions are raised by congregational members all those in the room are able to explain the program cogently and elaborate on its value. The support of the group becomes “built-into” the program.
  4. The pastor should plan and head the meeting. S/he should know what items are on the calendar (a good secretary can compile that list), what ministries needs to be planned, and what programs need follow-through.
  5. Begin each meeting with prayer. The prayer should include congregational members who are ill and shut-in, and be sure to ask for wisdom for the meeting
  6. Be sure that each person has a copy of the upcoming calendar for the next period of time (at least three months in advance, longer for larger churches). It doesn’t matter if it’s hard copy or electronic as long as participant can note changes on their calendars. As the calendar is reviewed, be sure that there are no conflicts of date or venue. Leaders can teach others to plan ahead by reserving dates and rooms on a first-come-first-serve basis.
  7. If your staff meeting includes those involved in worship, a time of reflection and evaluation is important. What happened during worship? What was good? What needed work? Were there any logistical programs (nursery workers, ushers, greeters, testimonies)? What can be corrected and how?
  8. The previous events should take no more than 30 minutes – usually much less. The next hour is devoted to following-up on assignments and creating new programs. (Example: We want new banners for the sanctuary.  Assign it to a staff or ministry team member.  Give it a due date.  Subsequent staff meetings will have an agenda item that is a follow-up on progress and completion.)
  9. Be sure that each meeting includes time of praise for good work. Far to many people can only criticize ministers and ministry. Learn how to give specific and meaningful praise to those on the team.

Of course, like most preachers, I could go on and on. But understand that each pastor – and team – develop their own style and, with trial and error, usually finds what works for them. I encourage every congregation – regardless of time – to schedule a staff meeting … for the good of the Church.

Rev. James L. Sparks, Pastor Emeritus of North Avenue Church of God, Battle Creek, Michigan

Email your comments and thoughts to Jim.

March 5, 2018

25 is the New 45

The Rev. Tom Whitesel is Lead Pastor of Ithaca Church of God in Ithaca, Michigan.

When I graduated from college, there was only one way to do sermons: Introduction. Point One. Point Two. Point Three. Conclusion. And there were illustrations to be added, a funny story, etc. I really don’t remember length being talked about, but 45 minute sermons were common.

As a pastor, I am constantly trying to grow. I am constantly trying to stay aware of what works in 2018, not 1983 (when I graduated). Because it is 2018, I now try to aim for my message to be 25 minutes in length. This is something that I only recently have gotten better at.

Honestly, the way I look at it… it doesn’t matter how long I think that a sermon should be if the culture mentally turns me off after 30 minutes. And frankly, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not that good of a speaker. I can’t hold the attention of a group of people in the year 2018, for 45 minutes. If some of the best speakers in the world are speaking 18-20 minutes (TED Talks), who am I to think that I can push it much past that?

Again: this has nothing to do with how long I feel that I need to adequately develop a text. If the people aren’t listening, I must adapt. Andy Stanley’s book “Communicating For A Change” was very helpful to me in this area. I don’t do everything that he suggests, but the overall principles were priceless to me. Stanley says:

"You've got to narrow the focus of your message to one point. Then everything else in the message supports, illustrates, and helps to make it memorable.” [Communicating For A Change, Random House Publishing]

Stanley challenges what used to work in 1983. Because it is not 1983 anymore! Honestly, do we really expect people to remember 3 points on Monday morning?

Actually it has been very freeing to feel that I don’t have to share everything that I know about a text in one sermon. I try to make one major point during the message. Or I might make two or three small points that all support one big idea. If the people don’t remember a small point, that’s ok, but they might remember the big idea.

This forces me to take out illustrations that I personally like but aren’t absolutely necessary. It challenges me to stick with the main text instead of adding and exegeting two or more supporting passages. I used to do that regularly. But if my wonderful illustrations and exegesis make my sermon 35 minutes, then the likelihood of connecting with people seriously decreases.

It might not be the way it should be. But it is the way it is.

I’m preaching shorter messages these days. And I’m actually enjoying it.

Rev. Tom Whitesel, Pastor at Ithaca Church of God

Email your comments and thoughts to Tom.

February 26, 2018

Color Blind

The Rev. Dr. John F. Davey is Lead Pastor of Pennway Church of God in Lansing, Michigan.

Recently my wife and I were in Florida when we stopped at a fast food chicken restaurant. As I was leaving I saw a lady, who seemed to work there, come out from the back with her son hanging on her back, around her neck. In an attempt to be friendly and lighten her mood, I said to her, “Looks like you have a monkey on your back.”

I’ve sometimes used that phrase to refer to troubles hanging around us. Almost as soon as I spoke those words, however, I realized the lady was African American, and I was embarrassed by the crassness of my words. Many African Americans have been called “monkeys” in the most derogatory way. While I never meant my words in that manner, it displayed gross insensitivity on my part.

I’ve become mostly color-blind, and thought I was doing well with race relations, but that awkward moment helped me realize that loving a person of color is not just looking beyond their color. To really love a person I need to see them not only as who they are, but also as where they have been, and what they feel. While I may have felt love for that lady in the restaurant, I now know that I communicated hate. I am learning that to really love a person we must see their situation and understand their experience in order to truly care about them.

When the Canaanite woman in Tyre who asked him to help her daughter who was possessed by a demon confronted Jesus, He saw the woman. The Jewish friends of Jesus saw this woman as a dog because of her race. They believed the Messiah was to come only to Israel. But when the woman persisted, Jesus responded,

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26)

While this seems derogatory, Jesus was teaching his disciples something about love, and how Jews had treated the woman. Jesus changed the word for “dog” from one that means a “mutt” to one that means “beloved puppy.” Jesus not only taught a lesson, but also healed her daughter.

If I am going to truly love people of color, I need to truly understand their situation and orientation. Becoming color-blind is about sensitivity to the whole person, not just the color of skin. I am learning to see people, listen to people, and care about them, not only as who they are but also as where they have been. It has made me more sensitive to how I speak to people. I pray my black brothers and sisters will forgive me for my past errors and help me learn how to be more sensitive, and truly color-blind.

Rev. Dr. John Davey, Pastor at Pennway Church of God

Email your comments and thoughts to John.

February 19, 2018

Small Church Thinking

Rev. James L. Sparks is Church Health Minister
for the Church of God in Michigan

“How did all that growth happen? What did you do? What the magic formula?”

Those were the questions that I was being asked. I had been pastoring North Avenue Church in Battle Creek for about five years and was having a conversation with one of its previous pastors. He had labored many years at the church and did about everything all the books told him to do for the church to grow. By the time I arrived, there were about 80 people there, but within five years, we had grown to over 350 – and were still climbing.

I leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “Do you want me to tell you the secret?” He practically salivated, “Yes!” He was disappointed when I told him that there was no secret; no single thing; no magic formula. What happened during that amazing period of growth was a combination of several things – all of them consistent with the gospel; all done consistently week-in and week-out; all done deliberately and intentionally; all aimed for a common goal.

Our worship services, our mission programs, our educational opportunities – everything – was directed toward individuals developing and maintaining a burden for souls; for transformed lives – in themselves and in others.

We reduced the number of meetings – actually reducing the number of boards, and how the single board conducted itself – so congregants could have time to participate in outwardly focused ministries. We reduced the length of our worship services, so visitors could feel comfortable about knowing when a time of worship would start and when it would end. (When we went to a second, back-to-back worship service, keeping to a time schedule became extremely important.) We strengthened our ministry to children – from crib room care to upper elementary, involving the best of our people who we trained and equipped. We developed policies and procedures so that everyone could operate under the same code of expectations.

In other words, we stopped thinking like a small church. There are certain things a small church does that a large church could never do. And those “small church” things are often barriers to growth.

We stopped asking anyone in the congregation if there were any announcements. It was the job of the pastor(s) and staff to stay abreast of the activities of the church. As staff, we put the necessary information in the worship folder and pointed it out to the congregation. We stopped reading the announcements to them, discovering that 99.9% of the congregation was literate and capable of reading for themselves. We stopped making “small group” announcements to the whole congregation. There’s no sense of informing an entire congregation about a change of location of a meeting for ten people. We stopped taking prayer requests during the worship service. We found that we couldn’t control how much time Brother Tom or Sister June would take to tell the entire story of their cousin’s gall bladder surgery. Worship was not the place to tell those stories anyway. Additionally, we found that vocal prayer requests focused almost exclusively on matters of healing of the body, not healing of the soul. That type of thinking ran counter to our mission. We stopped taking “special offerings” for a myriad of good and noble causes, and placed those causes in our budget. Our people could become better stewards of their own money in that way.

There were other changes outside the worship experience. We made sure we kept regular office hours. We answered the phone in a professional manner. We responded to requests quickly and accurately. We met regularly as a staff to deal with the specifics of building cleanliness, room assignments, and weekly schedules. We stopped behaving like a small church that intended to stay small.

Oh, there were problems. There was resistance. There was pushback. But – and here’s the kicker – we believed we were right. We believed the mission of souls was the correct goal. We believed that any of these smaller traditions that interfered with that larger goal should be changed. We found that “small church thinking” was usually counter-productive to reaching souls and transforming lives. It is not only wrong; it is wrong-headed.

I’m sure that there are many traditionalists that would disagree with me. That’s OK. But I believe the Church – the Capital “C” Church – was not purchased with Christ’s blood for potluck dinners, and pages of prayer requests for bodily healing, and worship services that don’t worship, and two-hour meetings to decide how to spend $75. I believe the Church – the Capital “C” Church – exists to transform lives. And to accomplish that, a lot of “small church thinking” has to change.

February 12, 2018

Prayer Warriors

Rev. James L. Sparks is Church Health Minister
for the Church of God in Michigan

Carlton Gaw had spent his entire adult life in bi-vocational ministry, serving as part-time pastor and part-time painter and sign-maker. By the time I met him in 1980 he and his wife were retired and living comfortably in a Hammond, Indiana neighborhood. Carlton was a prayer warrior. When he prayed, mountains were moved and the throne of the Almighty drew near. During a lifetime of service, it was obvious that Carlton knew his Lord on a “first-name-basis.” Since Carlton spent hours in prayer each day, it was no wonder that his favorite hymn was William W. Walford; “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
The joys I feel, the bliss I share,
Of those whose anxious spirits burn
With strong desires for thy return!
With such I hasten to the place
Where God my Savior shows His face,
And gladly take my station there,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
Thy wings shall my petition bear
To Him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless.
And since He bids me seek His face,
Believe His Word and trust His grace,
I’ll cast on Him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

When Carlton passed away in the early 90’s, I concluded his funeral message by quoting the latter part of the fourth verse:

...Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight:
This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise
To seize the everlasting prize;
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”

Not long afterward, a conversation occurred during mid-week prayer meeting, about Carlton’s passing and the loss we were feeling by previous deaths, when a person commented, “We’re losing all our prayer warriors.” The speaker of those words looked pointedly at me, implying, so it seemed, as though that were my fault. My response came out of my mouth before I could stop it: “If you are not a prayer warrior, then, yes, we’re losing our prayer warriors.”

As I talk with pastors around the state, the conversation invariably turns to the great elements of the church; what’s missing from our walk of faith; the need of the hour. However I ask the question, the answer always touches on “prayer.”

Through Jesus’ nativity, life, passion, death, and resurrection each of us have gained entrance to the throne room. And a great majority of believers either fail to understand the miracle of prayer, and a greater majority fail to practice it. While church members look to pastors, or governance models, or systems theories, or worship wars as a means of transforming lives, I submit that we each — laity and pastors — need to practice, preach, and model the miracle of prayer.

Rev. James L. Sparks, Church Health Minister

Email your comments and thoughts to Jim.

February 5, 2018

Do the Right Thing

Rev. Jim Horn is Northeastern Regional Pastor of the Church of God in Michigan.

Martin Luther King said,

'On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question, "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question, "Is it right?"

'The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of convenience, but where they stand in moments of great challenge and controversy.'

Doing what is right in difficult situations in the workplace is a huge challenge. In his book, God at Work, Ken Costa writes,

'There are right and wrong choices...all the invented terms such as "inappropriate" and "counterproductive" are efforts to avoid the simple ethical fact that there is a right and wrong course of action.'

When facing a difficult pastoral situation those of us in the leadership of the church need to remind ourselves that the first question we have to ask is 'What is the right thing to do?'

Of course, none of us get it right all the time. We all make mistakes. As Ken Costa writes,

'We only grow in wisdom if we learn from our mistakes.”

Siegmund Warburg said on this subject:

"Some name it disappointment and become poorer, others name it experience and become richer."

II Thessalonians 3:13 puts it this way:

“Never tire of doing what is right”

Jesus did not go for the easy or popular solution, but he always did the right thing. This is an important principle that runs throughout the entire Bible. That principle should serve as our model.

Rev. Jim Horn, Northeastern Regional Pastor

Email your comments and thoughts to Jim.

January 29, 2018

Package Deal

Rev. James L. Sparks is Church Health Minister
for the Church of God in Michigan

I’ve only did it once, but once was enough!

I bought a new car — way back in the 70’s. It was an Olds Cutlass Calais. I went into the dealership with lots of money in my pocket along with a list of all the bells and whistles to be added: AM/FM/Cassette, power steering, power brakes, and air conditionings, reclining bucket seats, and all the toys.

The salesman promptly looked over my list, then said, “I’ll give you a light package and the sport package. With those packages, you can get all you want along with special interior lights, 350 V8 with a good rear-end ratio to give you good gas mileage.”

I’ve come to find that experience is true in many areas of life. All too often we fail to realize that most of life is a “package deal.” Some of the things we want also come with some of the things we didn’t plan on having.

We marry a handsome young man or beautiful young woman, and dream of wedding cakes and white dresses, and often fail to realize that marriage requires a very mature level of unselfishness, compromise, compassion, and patience; that youth gives way to age and frailty, disease and death. To say “as long as we both shall live,” is to understand that one will place the other in the arms of Jesus.

Likewise, we feel the call to preach the gospel, care for a congregation, and our hearts burst with pride as we accept the mandate. We often fail to realize the necessity of adequate educational preparation, and only after a few failures along the way do we wish that we had devoted more effort to submitting to a mentor. As pastors, in order to be accepted by the congregation, we often live beyond our means; fail to plan a budget; fail to save for retirement; fail to save for our children’s education. In feeling that “God will provide,” we fail to live up to our own financial responsibility, and to understand that poor compensation is “part of the package.”

So much of life is a “package deal.” Life is good, but there’s some “bad” thrown in as well, and pastoral maturity demands that we realize that, as Ogden Nash put it,

The rain will fall
On the just and unjust fella.
It seems that the unjust
Has the justs’ umbrellas.

Life is a “package deal.”

Rev. James L. Sparks, Church Health Minister

Email your comments and thoughts to Jim.

January 22, 2018


Rev. Demetrius Booker is State Associate Pastor for Church Health for Ohio Ministries of the Church of God, and former Church Health Minister for the Church of God in Michigan

I am often asked by the curious, what is my ministry role? And I respond, to remind individuals and congregations fighting the good fight of faith that we are at war against powers and principalities who do not embrace God’s agenda. Second, equip leaders and congregations to win the battle. If you are uncomfortable with the word winning, exchange it with the word, “Being Fruitful” (John 15:8). Winning versus losing and being fruitful versus losing should be part of our daily reflections. When we are unfruitful and find ourselves losing the battles that challenges our faith in God and spiritual activities, we are not the only losers—the women, men, girls, boys, communities we live in and churches we worship in are affected!

There’s not a lot of good programs on TV now days and sometimes, even the good programs seemed to have been taken hostage by Hollywood’s agenda! But most recently, my favorite program had a scene in it that I found though provoking. Two of the main characters were having a conversation about how they were losing the battle and what did they need to do to turn the situation around. One of the characters mentioned, why don’t we just provide the tools needed to improve our chances of winning and the other one said in reply, the machine is far more intelligent than we are so why don’t we let the machine develop its own tools? To help their machine they created a simulation game between both machines to see if the machine could learn to win, but several scenes later, the machine in over a million simulated battle scenes was still losing, one million loses to the other machine’s zero loses! 

I thought about this particular episode and how it relates to the many battles Christians and Christian institutions are facing. It appears that we have and are losing many battles! When I was a child, I wondered how did those before me lose the battle of prayer in the classrooms? I fear now that those who will come after us, future believers, will wonder how did we – you and I – lose the cultural wars confronting us today?

Winning requires adaptation and transformation. When I say adaptation, I mean to revamp, reconstruct, modify, redesign or make alterations so that you can meet the needs or challenges before you.

The strength behind adaptations is to confront the truth in terms of goals versus attainment, and original intent versus current reality. I have found in my four decades of being a minister of the gospel that believers and churches do not do a good job of adaptation. While hope and prayer may be the default strategy for many believers, the absence of adaptation will produce little results. Unless our pastors and leadership teams redesign new methods and acquire new tools we will continue to lose current and new battles. Battles we have already been equipped to win!

Transformation is a thorough or dramatic change or metamorphosis in appearance. In this post Christian era, many of our churches have not changed along with the times. No, I am not saying the changing of core values or biblical doctrinal beliefs, but rather changes that make us relevant and fresh.

Examples of Transformational Changes:

Horse and buggy to trains, planes and automobiles
Type writer to Computer
Overhead projectors versus PC’s
Land lines phones to Cell phones
Cell phones to Smart Phones
Analogue to Digital
Oven cooking to microwave or Nuwave ovens

One does not have to look far to see the transformation of our Retail Industry. Companies like Montgomery Wards, Mervyns and – presently – the dissolution of Sears and Kmart. These once powerful and ever present corporations once were considered the mega stores. Stores without brick and mortar are contributing to their demise! One store in particular is Amazon. Stocks are up in the transportation business of UPS and FedEx because of the increase of a customer base that never has to leave their home to shop. On the New York Stock Exchange, Amazon stock is worth twice the price of Walmart stock.

I am sure you can name several more, but these are just a few of the changes that have improved the life styles of humans. Let’s mention a few ecclesiastical transformational changes:

Hymnals vs TV monitors or projectors
Ushers vs Greeters
Printed Bibles vs eBooks
Sunday School vs Small Group Classes
Windows vs Air Conditioners
Pianos vs Keyboards

This is not a choice between liberalism and tradition. Remember: Transformation has little to do with the transformer’s desires, but rather the person for whom the transformation will affect! We get this example from Jesus’ walk on the earth.  As a Jew, he was not supposed to talk to Samaritans, but yet he did, simply to show them they were loved by God. To the outcast such as Zacchaeus or the woman caught in the act of adultery, he showed them mercy and redemption. To the sick and afflicted, he showed them compassion. Even the embodiment of Jesus from Spirit to human form was a transformation, not for himself, but rather for the salvation of those who were lost!

In order to start winning this war, we, that means you and I must take a look in the mirror and count the times we have intentionally gone through a transformation process to produce fruit that glorify God?

Fruitful Transformation may start in small groups and extend to medium and large board rooms, but must be clearly seen in our willingness to sacrifice the good of the now and our personal comforts to reach today’s lost and tomorrow’s future Children of God.

Rev. Demetrius Booker, State Associate Pastor for Church Health

Email your comments and thoughts to Demetrius.

January 16, 2018

Building the Kingdom of God

Most of us have been to seminars that “have the secret” of success in ministry. “If you do it like we did at Holiness Vineyard Community Fellowship Church people will flock to your doors.” Most of us have also struggled with the reality that what works one place does not work at our place. Jim Sparks and I both go to churches that are struggling and they ask what can we do, and like these seminars we can tell them what worked in Sears, Battle Creek, or Mio, but then we become much like the leaders of these seminars. Below are 10 basics for any church to build the Kingdom of God.

  1. Love the people in your congregation and give them good Pastoral Care. As the church gets larger, it cannot all be done by the Pastor, but it must be done.
  2. Find a significant need in your community, plan how to meet it, then implement that plan. This is not a one time shot or a once a year event, but a day to day, year to year plan to make a difference in your community.
  3. Teach your people how to share the message of Jesus Christ. The Church is not about a professional clergy, but about a trained laity (the priesthood of all believers). People need to know how to share their testimony and how to explain the way one becomes a Christian.
  4. Preach sermons that are true to God’s Word and always show how they apply to the listeners life.
  5. Don’t over meet people. Time is precious and most people can give the Church no more than three hours a week. If those hours are taken up with worship and meetings, there is not time to interact with those who need Jesus. Give people time to be in the world.
  6. As Pastors, we must never ask people to do what we are unwilling to do. Set the example.
  7. Slay “sacred cows” that do help us to accomplish our mission. This is tough because some of those cows have been with us a long time and we love them. We are not a social club that does things we like, but an army on mission to regain what the Devil has stolen.
  8. Teach and practice the disciplines of sacrifice and servanthood. We see these in Jesus and we certainly are not greater than our Master.
  9. Do not be afraid to fail. Not every idea works, and not every plan succeeds, but learn from each endeavor and keep trying. There are persons in your community that only your congregation can reach. Their eternal soul hangs in the balance.
  10. Always work on making the Church more graceful, forgiving, and giving. The Church should always be the most graceful, forgiving, and generous place in town.

Rev. Dr. William H. Jones, State Pastor

Email your comments and thoughts to Bill.

January 8, 2018

The Demands of Charity

The Rev. Dr. Robert O. Dulin, Jr. is Pastor Emeritus of Metropolitan Church of God in Detroit and Southeastern Regional Pastor for the Church of God in Michigan

Charity without social action – what does it profit? In a society permeated with social inequities and injustice, have we fully satisfied the demands of charity by giving alms to the poor? Does charity demand more of us? And if ‘Yes,’ what ‘more’ is demanded?

Answers to this latter question come into focus when we seek answers to the question – What makes charity necessary? The more I ponder answers to this question the more I’m challenged to conclude that charity demands more than giving alms to the disinherited.

Charity is made necessary by the institutionalized social inequities, injustice, and bigotry that permeate our society’s structures, constructs, and governmental policies. Social inequities, injustice, and overt-and-covert bigotry rule the day and the night; these sins make charity necessary. These sins, however, will never be eradicated by giving alms to those affected by these sins. While alms giving may help to temporarily ameliorate the physical needs of the disinherited, alms giving – however generous the gift – does not change ‘what makes charity necessary.’

We live and move and have our being in a broken world; and this world’s brokenness can only be mended – redeemed – when people of good will go beyond dropping a coin or two in the Salvation Army’s Red Buckets. Yes, we do well and good – when we fill the Red Buckets and the church’s offering plates. If we are, however, to respond adequately to the demands of charity, we will need to go the second and third and even fourth mile; we will need to exercise the kind of faith that works with the Christ who gave his life to redeem us, and to redeem the structures and constructs of a society gone wrong.

There is crying need for our generous and tangible gifts to the disinherited to be undergirded by the kind of faith-and-works that seeks to change how things are done in our communities.

Giving alms to the poor is an act – easily done. Working to change social conditions requires time, effort, energy, and courage; yes, even courage to risk discussing social and political issues – however threatening, or disruptive, such discussions may be to our assumed peaceful fellowship.

I want to commend those pastors, and other church leaders and congregational members who during this passing year worked untiringly to make a difference in their communities. My prayer for the coming year is that all our congregations will continue to work to be in alignment with the Christ who came to save us, to redeem society’s structures from immoral practices – and to show us how life was meant to be lived.

God is at work in our world – let’s continue to work with Him who has proven his love for the world (John 3:16). May the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ arm us with everything we need to prove our love for the disinherited – THEN…The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Matt. 25:40 NIV).

Rev. Dr. Robert O. Dulin, Jr., Southeastern Regional Pastor

Email your comments and thoughts to Bob.