Nineteen Books I Plan to Read in 2019


I love to read. For me, reading is relaxing, educational, and often inspirational.

However, I haven’t always enjoyed digesting a good book. My affinity for reading was slow to develop.  But when it emerged, it flourished. During my teenage years, I perceived reading to be a nuisance and somewhat of a necessary evil to get decent grades. At some point during my college years, however, I learned to enjoy reading, not just for assignments or entertainment, but for personal growth.

As a minister, writer, and pastoral counselor, I need to read widely to stay current and relevant. More importantly, in my current stage of life, I need books like I need food, to satisfy cognitive hunger and to probe intellectual curiosity. Books stimulate my thinking, exercise my memory muscles, and challenge my presuppositions.

Typically, I read a variety of genres including fiction, spirituality, theology, history, and biography. I concur with Diane Duane who surmised that, “Reading one book is like eating one potato chip.”  Therefore, I usually keep from three to five books going at the same time, a discipline that was recommended by Opal Lovett, one of the most influential faculty members from my college years. This practice involves a variety of authors as conversation partners in my internal dialogue.

And I am careful to read books that I disagree with. One of Tony Campolo’s most underrated books contended, They Are the Enemy and They Are Partly Right.  Reading an opposing viewpoint challenges me to test my own assumptions and it acquaints me with a variety of perspectives, equipping me to dialogue and debate intelligibly, and not just emotively.

For the past several years, around the first of January, I make a list of books that I plan to read during the coming year. While I hope to read 40-50 books this year, I have already compiled a list of nineteen of the books I want to be sure to read in 2019:

  1. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton.
  2. Eternity Is Now in Session by John Ortberg.
  3. A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing by Walter Brueggemann.
  4. Were You There: Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals by Luke Powery.
  5. The Power of Love by Bishop Michael Curry.
  6. Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus by Bishop Michael Curry
  7. The Reckoning by John Grisham.
  8. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll.
  9. Letters to the Church by Frances Chan.
  10. The CEO Next Door by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell
  11. Farsighted by Stephen Johnson.
  12. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.
  13. A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing of Pain and Memory by Frederick Buechner
  14. The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives by Peter Scazzero
  15. An Unhurried Leader: The Lasting Fruit of Daily Influence by Alan Fadling.
  16. Irresistible: Reclaiming the News That Jesus Unleashed for the World by Andy Stanley.
  17. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Heart. by Brene’ Brown
  18. Grief Day by Day: Simple Practices and Daily Guidance for Living with Loss by Jan Warner and Amanda Bearse.
  19. The Waiting Room: 60 Meditations for Finding Peace and Hope in a Health Crisis by Elizabeth Turnage.

I find that it is healthy and helpful to read “outside the box” of my personal ideology. In other words, don’t just read the kind of stuff that reinforces what you think you know with certainty. Dare to read something that challenges you to think about life and faith from a different point of view.

Whether you are a fast reader or a slow reader, a hard print reader or a e-book reader, read for quality, not quantity. Mortimer Adler said it best: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

Enjoy a great year of reading in 2019!




A New Trend Emerging in Pastoral Calls

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In the Baptist world, an ecclesial culture that treasures local church autonomy and operates in a “free call” method for pastoral assignments, there seems to be a new trend emerging. More and more pastor search committees are considering associate ministers with no senior pastor experience for senior pastor roles.

Throughout much of my ministry, I have observed pastor search committees limit their pool of candidates to ministers with solo or senior pastor experience. In the past, it has not been uncommon for search committees to limit their search with demographic parameters that are surprisingly narrow, such as seeking candidates “who are 35-55 years of age, who have graduated from a Baptist seminary, and who have 5 or more years of senior pastor experience.”

During a Center for Healthy Churches consultants’ retreat last fall, when asked to provide an update on the church from which I had retired, I shared that the church had called a 36-year-old associate pastor who had no senior pastor experience. And then I added affirmatively, “And he seems to be off to a great start.”

This led to our group recounting and listing the growing number of churches in our circles of acquaintance who have also recently called an associate pastor or a ministry resident to the position of senior pastor. Our team named 16 such churches immediately and continued to add to the list in follow up conversations. We were all surprised at the large number of churches (even those churches some call “big steeple churches,” “flagship churches,” or “legacy churches”) who have called new senior pastors whose only previous experience is as an associate.

One of our team members mentioned that when he started out, it was expected that a pastor would begin serving as a solo pastor in a small church, perhaps even while attending college or seminary, and then move to a larger pastorate soon after graduation. Several of my veteran colleagues recalled that when our generation of ministers moved from a smaller church to a larger church, the biggest challenge was adjusting to a multi-staff culture and providing guidance over a much larger budget.

Then we began to itemize the advantages that associates, who already have experience on a medium or large church staff, bring to a senior pastor role:
• They are familiar and comfortable with how a medium-to-large church operates.
• They are already comfortable and familiar with a multi-staff environment.
• They are acquainted with budgetary designations, parameters, and objectives.
• They bring fresh eyes and ideas to the mission of the church and the role of the senior pastor.
• They usually fall in an age range that makes a long tenure possible.
But there are also challenges for an associate who moves directly to the pastorate of a medium-to-large congregation:
• As an associate, they may have preached periodically, but now they must prepare sermons for 40-46 Sundays per year in addition to midweek services and other special events, a responsibility which requires a relentless discipline of preparation.
• Depending on a candidate’s age, they must overcome the stereotype of “youthfulness.”
• They must adjust to senior leadership. Even though an associate has experience leading large groups of people, senior pastoral leadership can often be more like herding cats than shepherding sheep.
• A senior pastor must show fairness and balance to all the ministries of the church and not be preferential. For example, an associate who has served for years in student ministry cannot give preferential treatment to student ministry.
• An associate who becomes a senior pastor must be patient with the learning curve and not expect to have the wisdom of a veteran pastor overnight.

Dave Snyder recently transitioned from an associate’s role to serve as the new senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, a church with 2,600 members. When asked about some of the biggest challenges he has faced, Snyder immediately mentions the learning curve: “My lack of experience as a senior pastor presents some unique challenges. For example, there is no history in my soul when it comes to dealing with major church issues, unexpected tragedies, and overall staff leadership. Each month of my first year tends to be a classroom full of lessons learned. When leading staff meetings, prayer gatherings, ordinances, counseling, and preaching, I don’t have years of experience or expertise to draw on. Although my excitement is there, the lack of history in the role can produce an uneasiness in me if I allow it to.”

Then Snyder adds, “But after 17 years in student ministry, I have discovered new life and excitement in ministry. A senior pastor carries different types of work and labor. I have been excited about my first Christmas Eve service, my first Lord’s Supper, and my first deacon ordination. For veteran senior pastors, these come as normal parts of the call. In my first year, they are all brand new. On top of these, meeting, shepherding, and teaching the people of God creates deeper joy in my call. Multi-generations of people are now under my care. Although this is a huge undertaking, I am being strengthened by God’s grace.”

Pastor search committees who are looking for the best possible senior pastor for their church are discovering that experienced associate pastors and ministry residents are prime candidates for their committee’s consideration.  Associate ministers have a wealth of experience which enables them to adapt to a senior pastor role in a short period of time.  And much like participants in a medical residency program, ministry residents who have served two or more years in a local church residency program usually complete a full rotation in multiple areas of specialization, which gives them more diverse experience than many pastors who have not had the privilege of getting hands-on experience in multiple staff areas.

A healthy church is a community of Jesus followers with shared vision, thriving ministry, and trusted leadership. The team of consultants at the Center for Healthy Churches are available to assist your congregation in facilitating healthy pastoral transition. For more information about our services please contact us.

(Dr. Barry Howard retired in 2017 after spending 39 years in pastoral ministry, the last 12 years as the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church Pensacola. He completed his coach training at the Pastoral Institute in Columbus, Georgia. He has a passion for the local church and a natural talent for fostering healthy practices among clergy and congregations. He serves as a coach for CHC.)

Don’t Let the Darkness of Grief Eclipse the Light of Christmas


Yesterday when my wife and I went for our afternoon walk, it seemed to be getting dark a little earlier than the day before.  And today will be even darker.  And it should be, because today is the darkest day of the year.

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, usually occurs on Dec. 21. The solstice, which literally means, “sun stood still,” officially marks the beginning of winter.

More notably, with the shortest day also comes the longest period of darkness. The Earth’s axial tilt is at its furthest point from the sun, allowing the least amount of daylight to reach the earth.

While it may be merely coincidental that the darkest day arrives just prior to our customary celebration of Christmas, from my experience as a pastor, I am aware that holidays can be dark days emotionally for many of us.

While there are a variety of events, experiences and emotions that cast dark shadows over our lives, some even bleak enough to obscure the joy of Christmas, a prominent culprit is grief.

Grief comes in many shapes and sizes.  We grieve over the death of friends and loved ones. We grieve over disintegration of a marriage. We grieve over an unexpected diagnosis. We grieve over friction within the family. We grieve over the loss of a job. We grieve over tragic events around the globe. At times, we may even grieve over our diminishing health, the loss of our dreams or the fading of opportunities.

Let me be quick to affirm that grieving is healthy as long as we are progressing through the grief process as opposed to becoming stuck in our grief.

The Bible never tells us not to grieve, but it does counsel us not to grieve “as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Be aware that the empty chair at the Christmas dinner table, the Christmas card labeled “return to sender” or the empty pillow on the other side of the bed can all trigger a seemingly overwhelming sense of darkness, loneliness or grief.  Grief is a naturally part of life.  However, unprocessed grief is unhealthy and can lead to anger, depression or even physical illness.

During the holidays, rather than being overwhelmed by the darkness of grief, look your grief in the eye and call it by name. Dialogue with your grief. Don’t deny it or ignore it. But just because grief is present, it doesn’t have to be dominant.  Don’t let grief dictate or dominate the mood or conversation of your holiday celebration.

I am convinced that because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), our faith gives us the capacity to experience the pangs of grief and “the peace of God, that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) simultaneously.

Our faith does not exempt us from the darkness, but our faith does equip us to deal with our grief with deep-seated hope.

Hinting at what life will be like when the promised Messiah comes, Isaiah 9:2 envisions that, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Walk through the darkness with courage. Just don’t take up residence in the shadows. Grief does not have the final word.

Today is the darkest day of the year.  But tomorrow, the days start getting longer, bringing a little more light.  The psalmist reminds us that “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (30:5b)

After the long night of darkness, then comes the light, gradually, but certainly.

Be careful not to let the darkness of grief eclipse the Light of Christmas.

(Barry Howard serves as a pastoral counselor who leads Healthy Grief Groups in Pensacola, Florida.)

When God Moved into the Neighborhood


One of my favorite passages to reflect on at Christmas is found in the first chapter of the gospel of John. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates verse 14 like this: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14a MSG).  This earthy translation traces the incarnation to our front door.

Often overlooked as one of the biblical Christmas stories, the first chapter of John’s gospel describes the incarnation in philosophical prose. In contrast,  Matthew and Luke composed nativity narratives which chronicle the birth story of Jesus.  John, however, portrays Jesus as the Word who came to bring life and light to all who are willing to receive it (1:4).  And now, over 2000 years later, this Light still guides our steps and this Life continues to infuse our existence with a sense of purpose and direction.

The gospel accounts are compiled from different vantage points. Just as Matthew’s gospel appeals to the historian and genealogist in us, and Luke’s gospel sings to the poet and musician inside of us, perhaps John’s gospel dialogues with the inquirer and logician within us.

John asserts that in the beginning of all things, the Word co-existed with God. Before order was brought out of chaos, the Word was with God. Before light emerged out of darkness, the Word was with God. Before the first breath exhaled through human nostrils, the Word was with God. The Word was, is, and always will be in sync with God.

The Greek term translated and personified as the Word is logos. Logos is a philosophical concept which can be translated as “ultimate meaning” or “reason for being.” During Christmas we may see or hear the familiar slogan that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I think John is actually proposing this Word incarnate informs our reason for being.

According to John, the Word took on human form and moved into the neighborhood. In other words, God not only entered the world as a human being on our behalf, but God has strategically chosen to be near and accessible to us.  In the incarnation, the God of the universe, who transcends our capacity to comprehend or control, has freely and lovingly chosen to relate to us in a personal way and to communicate with us in a language we can understand…an exemplary human life.

Remarkably, God not only invites us to receive light and life; God also calls us to be life and light wherever we live and wherever we go. As we follow the teachings of Jesus and emulate the example of Jesus, we become light and life in our community. As we serve God by serving others, especially the “least among us,” we too, mysteriously, become God’s flesh and blood, God’s hands and feet in our neighborhood.

In all seasons, may we share the Light and the Life with others in the way that we live and serve.

Simple Blessings I Never Want to Take for Granted

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I first saw this folk proverb on a sign hanging in one of our favorite Smokey Mountain restaurants: “Simple pleasures are life’s treasures.”  It reminded me of an old tv commercial that proclaimed, “Life’s simple pleasures are the best.” Whatever one’s station or mission in life, little blessings should never be taken for granted.

During this week designated to remind us to count our blessings, I will certainly be giving thanks for faith, family, friends, and freedom. But there are a few things that popped up in my gratitude inventory that some folks might label as minor blessings. For me, however, they are a big deal. Some are simple pleasures, others are personal preferences, and a few are stress relievers.

These twelve represent a longer list of blessings that add richness and meaning to life, simple gifts that I never want to take for granted:

  • A hot cup of coffee on a cool October morning.
  • A multi-colored sunrise over the bay or an autumn sunset over the Gulf.
  • Sticky hugs from nieces and nephews.
  • A timely phone conversation with a friend.
  • Artwork given to me by a child.
  • Immersing myself in a good book…a novel, a biography, or a little theology.
  • Home-made cards or written notes of encouragement.
  • A song emanating from my soul.
  • A refreshing midafternoon nap.
  • A weekly walk between 18 holes.
  • The freedom to gather with others to worship.
  • The privilege of dedicating, encouraging, baptizing, marrying, and even eulogizing others…walking alongside others through all of the seasons of life.

This week, as we give thanks for the big things, let’s also take time to give thanks for the little things that bring joy, fulfillment, and affirmation to our lives.

What would you include on your list of simple blessings?

Pastor: A Unique and Contextual Calling

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Earlier this week Eugene Peterson departed this life for his eternal home. But his influence will live on for years to come.  Throughout my ministry, I have been blessed with a few trusted and treasured mentors who shaped and molded my approach to pastoral work. Eugene Peterson is the only one I never met in person.

I think I have a copy of every one of Peterson’s books in my library. But his books about the pastoral vocation stand a little taller than the others. 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. On more than one occasion, this book 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-two years ago I confirmed my calling to be a pastor. Now I have retired from the active pastorate and have entered new season of coaching and encouraging pastors and congregations. And I am still reflecting, learning, and growing in my understanding of what it means to be an effective pastor, even in this new stage of life.

(Barry Howard is a retired minister, writer, and leadership coach who lives in Pensacola, Florida.)

Trusted Places to Make Your Donation for Hurricane Michael Relief

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Whether the destruction is caused by a hurricane, tornado, or flood, the process of cleaning up, repairing, and rebuilding is long and tedious.  And even when a dwelling or business is fully insured,  during the chaotic time immediately following a natural disaster, those affected may experience limited communication, inadequate supplies,  a need for temporary accommodations, and suspended employment.

Even as individuals are applying for FEMA funds or completing tedious insurance paperwork, there is a immediate need for resources and assistance. I am grateful for churches, community groups, businesses, non-profits, and individuals who give generously of their time and resources to assist those in the zone of destruction.

After a disaster strikes, one of the welcomed blessings is seeing neighbor helping neighbor, and seeing diverse groups and individuals put aside their political, theological, or personal differences and join forces to serve those afflicted by the disaster.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael I have been asked numerous times, “Where is the best place to send my donation?” After all, no one wants to be scammed.  As a pastor who has been on ground zero where tornadoes and hurricanes have hit, I have partnered with numerous organizations that I have found to be dependable and trustworthy accountable managers of disaster relief resources.

The following is a list of organizations that I have donated to or  worked with on the ground and found to be reliable and accountable:

  • Your local church
  • Volunteers of America
  • Christian Ministries of Pensacola
  • Florida Baptist Disaster Relief
  • Pensacola Bay Baptist Association
  • Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Disaster Relief
  • Baptists on Mission (NC)
  • The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)
  • Catholic Charities
  • Campers on Mission
  • Mennonite Disaster Services
  • LDS Charities
  • Samaritan’s Purse
  • The Salvation Army

This list is exemplary and not exhaustive.  I am sure that there are many other outstanding organizations that could be on this list.

When disaster strikes, it takes all kinds of groups working together cooperatively to meet the needs of those in distress.  By all accounts, rebuilding after Hurricane Michael will be ongoing for the next few years.  However, during these first few weeks after the storm, our generous gifts can make a life-sustain, life-changing impact.

Join me in giving a generous gift to Disaster Relief/Hurricane Michael.