12 Things I Learned from Trusted Mentors

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by Barry Howard

One of the great blessings in my life has been the guidance and influence of trusted mentors.  As one who sensed a call to ministry at a young age, I was surrounded by veteran pastors who shared wise counsel, practical advice, and gentle reprimands along the way.

I remember their names and their influence with vivid gratitude and clarity.  But because many of them shared the same proverbial lines with me, it is difficult to discern the origin of the advice or to recall which mentor first imparted a given line to me. However, the collective wisdom of these trusted mentors has been formative to my personal faith and pastoral methodology.

Here are 12 bits of advice I have assimilated from trusted mentors:

1.    “Immerse yourself in the scriptures, then preach and teach out of the overflow.”

2.    “Preparing yourself is as important as preparing the sermon.”

3.    “Always tell the truth and love the people.”

4.    “People will forgive a lot of bad sermons if they know you care about them.”

5.    “You will encounter problem people everywhere you serve. Be determined to out love them, outlast them, or outlive them.”

6.    “Never underestimate the power of a personal touch.”

7.    “As a pastor, you will be criticized and scrutinized unfairly. Always take the high road.”

8.    “Protect your marriage. If you neglect your marriage while trying to fulfill your ministry, you will likely lose both.”

9.    “Preach and teach the good news the best you understand it, but leave the judging to God.”

10. “Take your off day. Your work will never be finished. The church was there long before you came along, and it will be there long after you are gone.”

11. “Learn to delegate, or else you will wear out, burn out, or give up.”

12.  “Brevity is appreciated in all things, including sermons, wedding ceremonies, eulogies, and public prayers.”

Over the past 39 years I have done a pretty good job of implementing some of this wisdom. If pastoral ministry were baseball, some days I bat .250 and other days I think I bat .500.  But one thing’s for sure: I’ve never come close to batting 1.000. 

I still have a lot to learn, and I am grateful for the wisdom that veteran pastors imparted to me. In the days ahead I hope to pass along a few insights to the young men and women who are beginning their journey into this unique and strategic vocation.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

 

Memorial Day: A Day to Remember and Reflect

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by Barry Howard

Who kept the faith and fought the fight; The glory theirs, the duty ours.        –Wallace Bruce

As a pastor serving in an active military community, I am privileged to serve alongside those who serve or have valiantly served our country.  But I also serve in a community where an extraordinarily large number of residents have lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister, friend or neighbor on the field of battle. Over the past twelve years I have shared eulogies at dozens of memorial services for veterans or their family members at the Barrancas National Cemetery at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. So for me, Memorial Day invokes more of a sense of observance than of celebration. The last Monday in May does not usually generate as much holiday enthusiasm as Christmas, Easter, or Independence Day. However, we should be careful that the meaning of this holiday does not become lost in the busyness of our activities.

Memorial Day is not just another “day off” but a day to remember those who have lost their lives in the military service of our country. This is a day to remember those who, according to Henry Ward Beecher, “hover as a cloud of witnesses above this Nation.”

In a culture that is increasingly attention-deficient, remembering is a painful but necessary discipline.  Revisiting stories from the battlefield may keep us consciously aware of the harsh realities of war. Exploring the historical narrative may enable us to learn from both the successes and the failures of our ancestors. When we remember the fallen we keep alive the individual and corporate legacies of valor and courage that inspire and challenge us to be responsible citizens of the free world.

When we fail to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us, we succumb to a convenient amnesia that eventually robs succeeding generations of acquaintance with our national heritage.  To fail to remember creates a contagious apathy that leads to a neglect of both our freedom and our citizenship.   To fail to remember can produce a false sense of security and an inaccurate perception that we are exempt from future warfare.  If for no other reason, we should remember in order to guard against what George Washington called “the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Perhaps our high tech world is at times too much of a fantasy world.  When we pause our trivial pursuits, daring to focus on our unabridged heritage can stir in us both a gut check and a reality check. The kind of remembering we need to do on Memorial Day is an uncomfortable but necessary discipline, a practice that forges vision from memory and distills wisdom from history.

In The Roadmender  Margaret Fairless Barber suggests that “To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.”

This year, as we observe Memorial Day, let us take time to remember the men and women who served with distinction and made extraordinary sacrifices to establish and preserve our freedom.  By remembering our heritage, may we be better equipped and motivated to engage the enemies of our day with courage, hope, and determination.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at First Baptist Church of Pensacola.)

Keeping Holy Week Holy

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holy week 3The word “holy” is a healthy and meaningful word, though probably one of the most misunderstood terms in the English language. The concept of holiness does not suggest “spiritual superiority” or “moral perfection.”   The word “holy” means set apart or different. In the New Testament the Greek word for holy is “hagios,” which means “different,” specifically different from the world or different than the cultural norm.

This Sunday is Palm Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week, a week that is to be different from a normal week. For me, Holy Week is a season for soul-searching and contemplating the depth of God’s love. During this week, Christians, all around the globe will be reflecting on the events that led to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

Why is observing Holy Week important to our preparation for Easter? Here’s a bit of history: The traditional observance of Holy Week seems to have originated in the Christian East, emerging out of the practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Each day of Holy Week is important but at least four days call for specific reflection. Palm Sunday is a day to revisit the royal welcome extended to Jesus by the curious crowd as he entered Jerusalem. On Maundy Thursday believers recall the occasion when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples as he gave them a new mandate to love and serve. Good Friday is a day to review the passion and suffering of Christ on the cross. And Resurrection Sunday, or Easter, is a festive day to celebrate and proclaim that “Christ is risen; He is risen indeed.”

Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, senior minister at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana describes the progressive steps in a meaningful pre-Easter journey: “Holy Week services bring into focus dimensions of discipleship that are missed completely by a simple leap from Palm Sunday to Easter. Worship services which take seriously the truths of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday please God because they challenge a greater commitment and a more comprehensive ministry of compassion among the people of God.”

This year as you navigate through each episode of Holy Week, here are a few suggestions for keeping Holy Week, holy:

        • Read the gospel account in John 12-20.
        • Listen to the conflicting voices in the crowd
        • Meditate on the cruel injustice of the cross.
        • Imagine the passion of Christ’s suffering.
        • Think on the hopelessness at his burial.
        • Celebrate the hope of the resurrection.
        • Renew your vows to faithfully follow Jesus.

Such an intentional journey through Holy Week may deepen our faith and inspire us to follow Jesus with unrelenting resolve.

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

7 Helpful Things to Know As We Prepare for Holy Week

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Christ the Lord is risen today, Sons of men and angels say. Raise your joys and triumphs high; Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply.     -Charles Wesley
 

Next week is Holy Week, the final week of Lent, and a week for Christians to re-trace the footsteps of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter. Here are seven things that are helpful to know as we prepare for Holy Week:

  1. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week and serves as a day to revisit the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem.
  1. On Holy Wednesday, two important things happened: First, Judas accepted 30 pieces of silver from the chief priests who enlisted him to betray Jesus. This is the reason Holy Wednesday is often referred to as Spy Wednesday.   Second, Jesus was anointed by the woman at Bethany with the expensive jar of alabaster.
  1. On Maundy Thursday Christians recall Jesus’ mandate “to love one another as I have loved you.” The word “Maundy” is a derivative of the word “mandate.” Thursday is also when Jesus broke bread and shared the cup with his disciples in the upper room. On Maundy Thursday, believers often participate in acts of foot washing or communion.
  1. Good Friday (also called Sacred Friday, Passion Friday, or Holy Friday) is devoted to remembering and sensing the sacrificial and suffering of Christ on the cross.
  1. Silent Saturday is a day devoted to waiting. After the crucifixion Jesus was interred in a borrowed tomb. His closest followers were grappling with his death and not anticipating the resurrection.
  1. On Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, Christians celebrate and proclaim the good news that Jesus arose from the tomb victorious over death. Interestingly, the term “Easter” was originally the name of a pagan spring festival. Some believe it was named after the Teutonic god or goddess of spring. However, the name was seized by Christian believers and converted to a day of worship and feasting to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
  1. Easter is observed on the Sunday following the first full moon falling on or after March 21. Therefore, Easter cannot come before March 22 or after April 25. The Council of Nicea, convened by Augustine in A.D.325, affirmed the calculation used to determine the official date of Easter and that calculation is still used today.

Holy Week is an optimal time for followers of Jesus to think about and talk about the significance of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. One good way to observe Holy Week is by reading and reflecting on the passion narratives, those passages in the gospels that begin with Jesus’ agony and arrest in Gethsemane and conclude with his burial.

A meaningful Easter is filled with scriptures, songs, and stories. And the central story of God’s incomparable love for us is illustrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Will Willimon aptly affirms, “I am invited by Easter to interpret my story in the light of God’s triumph in the resurrection.”

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

A Bird’s Eye View

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My friend and fellow church member, Bill Harden, went home to be with the Lord in 2010. His beloved wife, Louise, joined him last week. They were quite a pair. Bill inspired his family and friends with his cheerful humor, durable smile, and artistic craftsmanship. Louise loved flowers, good food, and quality time with family and friends. Her life was a bouquet of encouragement, love, and compassion.  At the memorial service for Louise, the family chose to decorate the chapel and atrium of our church with spring flowers and birdhouses. 

Although Bill invested much of his career in the travel planning business, as a retirement hobby Bill carefully constructed birdhouses in a variety of shapes and sizes.  In addition to the dozens of birdhouses Bill gave to others as gifts, an assorted collection of birdhouses adorned the mantle and the hearth in the Harden home.

Around 2008, Dr. Jim Pleitz and I were each honored to receive a unique birdhouse as a gift from Bill.  Built especially for the pastor and pastor emeritus, these church-shaped birdhouses were built from the wood removed from the floor of our former education building, affectionately known as the old library building, which was severely damaged during Hurricane Ivan and eventually demolished a year later. 

I have strategically placed my birdhouse in front of the chair where I have my quiet time early in the morning. During my prayer time over the past several years, this birdhouse has become a wooden parable of how I understand church in the 21st century….not the bricks and mortar of our campus…but our ministry…our mission…our spiritual community.

While most of the wood on this birdhouse came from the old church, Bill also incorporated new lumber into the birdhouse, creating sort of a two-toned effect, a phenomenon that reminds us that our church is a composite of the old and the new, a merger of our heritage and our dreams.  

For the perch, Bill installed an oversized doorknob front and center, which reminds us that a healthy church needs a big door, one that swings both ways, welcoming us to worship and sending out to serve.  And that big door needs to be open wide, perhaps wider than ever, as we welcome old friends and new neighbors with Christian hospitality, else we will become cliquish and stagnant.

Above the door is a cross. Intentionally placed over the entrance in a location similar to the street number or family name on your home, this cross explicitly identifies the occupants as followers of Jesus above all else. 

And finally, Bill went online and ordered a miniature spire which now sits atop the steeple pointing upwards, beckoning us to look heavenward to God for our hope and our strength.

Following the memorial service for Louise, a couple of young family members stood at the chapel door giving to each person in attendance a package of seeds, which they were encouraged to plant in memory of Louise. In ways too numerous to mention, Louise was all about planting seeds for the future and preparing for the next generation. And the seeds she planted will bear fruit for generations to come.

Our friends, Bill and Louise, are now together in their eternal home, but they left behind an ongoing testimony, personified in wooden birdhouses and a few seeds.  Perhaps their story gives us a bird’s eye view of the future, a future wherein a church that merges the best of the old and new, and plants good seeds for the future, flourishes and bursts into full bloom.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

 

Pastor: A Unique, Contextual Calling

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by Barry Howard

While searching for a particular volume in my library, another book caught my attention. The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson is an inspiring autobiographical account of what it means to be called to pastoral ministry and to live out that vocation in a unique community. This book has inspired me to reaffirm my calling with fresh perspective.

While Peterson is known to many primarily for his popular Bible translation called The Message, his most significant contribution to my world has been his writings about pastoral work. Years ago I read three of Peterson’s books about pastoral ministry: Five Smooth Stones of Pastoral Work, The Contemplative Pastor, and Under the Unpredictable Plant. In a church world that looks to the pastor to be the CEO, a chaplain-on-demand, or an ecclesial entrepreneur, Peterson reminds ministers and churches that a pastor is more like a spiritual director, a “soul friend” who walks alongside others pointing out what God is doing in their life.

In a fast paced world, where a competitive consumerist culture has invaded the church, pastors are often expected to be an idealistic combination of captivating motivational speaker, savvy executive/administrator, and extraordinary counselor. But the call to be a pastor is unique. There is no other vocation like it.

Veteran pastor Hardy Clemons reminds us that the church is to be “more family than corporation.” Clemons reminds pastors and churches of their peculiar mission:

Our goal is to minister: it is not to show a profit, amass a larger financial corpus or grow bigger for our own security. The ultimate goals are to accept God’s grace, share the good news, invite and equip disciples, and foster liberty and justice for all.”

For Peterson, the call to be a pastor is a call to spiritual discernment and caring within a unique local congregation and community. It is not a “one size fits all” occupation that functions uniformly in cookie cutter churches. The “pastoral intelligence” you glean from ministering to your people becomes a primary tool of the Spirit which informs and inspires how you lead and preach to your people.

In Peterson’s Memoir, he summarizes his understanding of the biblical role of a pastor:

The pastor is “not someone who ‘gets things done’ but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful ‘without ceasing.

Each of us is responsible to God for fulfilling our calling. Forty-one years ago I confirmed my calling to be a pastor, and I am still learning and growing and understanding more of what it means to provide spiritual direction to a congregation. Being a pastor is more than what I do. It is who I am called to be.

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Be a Catalyst for Change by Praying for the President and Other Leaders

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On Friday January 20, Donald John Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Regardless of who we voted for, it is imperative for people of faith to pray for our new president and for other local, state, and national leaders.

From my perspective, our nation will be recovering for quite some time from one of the most negative and divisive election seasons in history. However, in addition to the negativity, there are other factors that make this election and forthcoming presidency unique and challenging: 1) Voters from both major parties “lacked enthusiasm” in their support of their party’s candidate. 2) Questions linger about hacking, tampering, or outside interference from a foreign government. 3) This election marked the largest disparity between the popular vote and the electoral vote. 4) There is at the minimum an uncomfortable relationship between the incoming president and key leaders within his own party.

These afore mentioned challenges underscore the reasons we need to pray for our newly elected president. Let me be quick to say that, for me, praying for a leader is not the same as affirming or agreeing with his or her policies or character. I believe this is true whether we are praying for the president, the governor, the mayor, or our pastor. To pray for a leader is to affirm the power of God in providing guidance and to intercede for that leader to be receptive to God’s direction, to grow in their moral and ethical conviction, and to govern or lead in the best interest of all people. That is why people of faith from a variety of political perspectives can unite around the common mission of praying for our president.

I believe that the Bible specifically teaches us to pray for those in leadership. I Timothy 2:1-2 may be the most direct instruction: I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

As the inauguration approaches, I am especially concerned that we commit to pray for our new president. The president needs our prayers, as every leader does. From my observation, and unfortunately, campaigns are focused on rhetoric. Once a leader takes office, they are confronted with reality. I think every president who takes office must have a “sobering moment” when they suddenly feel the weight of responsibility that comes with their charge.

Here are five specific petitions I am including in my prayer for the incoming president:

  1. Pray for the president to become grounded in his faith. Across the years, I have made it a practice to pray for every president to be grounded in his spiritual convictions, primarily because I believe a president will make wiser decisions when guided by his or her faith. Interestingly, our newly elected president was endorsed by multiple religious groups who perceived his agenda to be more closely aligned with their own. However, I am not aware of any of these groups who espouse that our incoming president is a faithful practitioner of his faith, that he is significantly involved in a faith community, or that he regularly reads or understands scripture. In fact, many of these groups are also praying for the new president to solidify or deepen his personal faith. If our incoming president becomes grounded in his professed faith, I think it could revolutionize his leadership style and moral compass, and enable him to serve with greater effectiveness.
  2. Pray for the president’s family. Both during a campaign and during a president’s tenure of service, his or her family undergoes an unimaginable degree of scrutiny. The pressure is immense, even for those accustomed to the limelight. Pray for the president’s family members, and for the president’s family relationships to be fortified by patience, fidelity, and discernment.
  3. Pray for the president to be wise and discerning in making appointments. Every appointment the president makes will be significant, including appointees to his Cabinet and to the Supreme Court. Pray for the president to choose individuals of good reputation and moral courage. Many of these selections, especially those appointed to the supreme court, will serve for years to come.
  4. Pray for the president to be prepared for an unexpected crisis. Every president in my lifetime has not only carried the daily burden of responsibility of leading our great nation, but they have faced more than one abrupt and unanticipated crisis. President Carter dealt with the Iran hostage situation. President Reagan survived an attempted assassination. President George H. W. Bush oversaw Operation Desert Storm. President Bill Clinton addressed the ethnic wars of Bosnia and Kosovo. President George W. Bush presided during the terrorist attacks of September 11. President Obama served during the sequence of revolts and demonstrations called The Arab Spring. Pray that the new president will be prepared to deal with any unexpected crisis that arises during his tenure.
  5. Pray for the president to grow in his capacity to serve. Regardless of their campaign rhetoric, I am convinced that no candidate is adequately prepared to serve when they enter public office, especially the office of president. An effective president must become a student of the office, learning to listen to his advisers, learning the importance of bipartisan cooperation, learning to recover from his or her mistakes, learning when to speak and when to refrain from speaking, learning conflict negotiation and crisis management, and learning to balance confidence and humility. Obviously, our new president has honed and sharpened his skills in the field of business. I pray that he will likewise sharpen his skills of leadership and diplomacy as he serves as our president.

Almost every election cycle, constituents and candidates from each party make “change” a part of their platform and message. Regardless of one’s political slant, I propose that prayer is the ultimate catalyst for change. Although I am not an advocate of bumper-sticker religion, I remember an intriguing progression of slogans or bumper-stickers from a few years ago. The first simply read, “Prayer changes things.” The second advanced the idea by stating, “Prayer changes people. People change things.” I am committed to praying for God to change people, and to empower people to enact change…morally, ethically, socially, and politically… in all the right places.

Not all followers of Jesus will always agree on who we vote for, but we can agree to pray for “all those in authority.” As we approach the upcoming inauguration, join me in praying for our newly elected president, and all of those who are in a leadership role on a local, state, or national level.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)