Choosing Caesar: A Pastor’s Thoughts on Election Year Conduct

This summer while visiting various sites in the ancient Roman Empire, I tried to brush up on my knowledge of the history of Western Civilization.  Just to make a full disclosure, the only “D” I made in college was in the “HY101: A History of Western Civilization.” And I’ve been trying to improve my understanding of that part of the world ever since.

Our tour started in Istanbul, Turkey, continued through the Greek isles, and culminated in Athens, Greece. We visited three of the sites of Wonders of the Ancient World: The Temple of Diana, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Mausoleum.

All along our tour we saw monuments and statues with tributes to the provincial governors and to one of the many Caesars. After dinner each evening, when I returned to our room, I would try to catch up on the news of the day by watching BBC or reading an online paper from the U.S.  As I read about Caesar by day, and read about the upcoming U.S. election by night, the simple but daunting reality dawned upon me that citizens in the ancient Roman world had no voice in choosing their governmental leaders, but we in the U.S. do, and that is still a rare and treasured privilege, even in today’s world.

Across the history of eastern and western civilizations, only a small percentage of the world’s population has ever had a voice in choosing government officials.  Even today when more nations than ever enjoy some form of democracy, only a fraction of the world’s citizens have any say in choosing their elected leaders.

How would life have been different if citizens in the ancient Roman Empire had been given the opportunity to vote on their government leaders? In a crucial election year, characterized by inflammatory rhetoric and partisan polarities, it’s important to remember that choosing leaders by “voting your conscience and conviction” is a privilege and responsibility afforded to only a few individuals.

I returned home from my summer travels with a greater awareness of my national and spiritual heritage, and a greater appreciation for our many freedoms.  However, as a pastor and as a citizen of these United States, this year I am weary of partisan propaganda-driven politics by both major parties.  I am disturbed by the rumor-mongering, name-calling, and urban myths that are “shared” on social network pages, blogs, and circulating emails.  And I am bothered that many in the name of faith are attacking the personal character and the religion of candidates they have never met, all the while avoiding serious dialogue about the most pressing issues of our day. Maybe more of our time and conversation should be aimed at developing constructive and rational strategies for addressing our national and global challenges.

As the election approaches, here are my perspectives on how we exercise responsible citizenship in times like these, regardless of our party affiliation or religious conviction:

  • Do your homework.  Research the candidates and amendments.  Do the hard work of wading through the propaganda. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to vote…not your mother, not your father, not your favorite superstar, and certainly not your preacher.
  • Practice civil discourse.
    Elections are a time to speak your conscience, vote your conviction, and engage in civil discourse.  Evaluating and critiquing the issues is much harder work than assailing and attacking a candidate. Dialogue with trusted friends about the pros and cons of a candidate’s track record, leadership style, and long-term vision is constructive. Spouting verbal graffiti about the opposing team is immature and childish, and it diminishes the electoral process.
  • Vote for your preferred candidate.  Discern and determine which candidate best represents your values and your vision, and then cast your ballot.  Do not be deterred or dissuaded by polls that talk about which candidate is leading on a given day. The election is not complete until your vote is cast. Realize that neither candidate is the devil or the messiah, and that each candidate’s position has strengths and weaknesses. Running for public office is demanding and exhausting.  Be grateful for those who are willing to run, even those with whom you disagree. It is difficult for those of us who have never campaigned to identify with the personal toll that is exacted on a candidate and his or her family
  • Pray for whoever is elected. On the morning after the election, someone will win and someone will lose. As a person who is learning to walk by faith, I am convinced that we need to pray for whoever is elected, whether they are my candidate of choice or not.  In a partisan culture, I find it disdaining that often the losing party declares that their mission is to defeat the elected candidate by subverting all attempts at his or her successful leadership.  The person who is elected will soon discover that the job requires more than a campaign slogan. I find the words from the Bible to be relevant to the way we respond to our elected leadership: I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior. (I Timothy 2:1-3)

Yes, we do live in uniquely perilous times. However, the dilemma and the debt our country faces were not created by leaders of one party but by both.  The resolution and resolve to correct our course will not be provided by one party or one leader, but by courageous and visionary leaders and responsible citizens from across all party lines.

The upcoming election is important but the election itself will not repair the state of the union, no matter which candidate is chosen.   My Bible does not say, “If my people who are called by my name shall elect the right president, I will heal their land.”  The Bible does say rather emphatically that, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)

If as followers of Jesus we began heeding these powerful words, we could ignite in our country a movement toward real recovery.

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

Being a Multi-Mission Partner Church

When describing our church family at First Baptist Pensacola, I usually tell folks that we are a “multi-mission partner, multi-worship service, and multi-generational congregation.”

Each of those “multi” dimensions presents a unique set of dynamics. Offering multiple worship services means that we need to be intentional about being one church with multiple styles and opportunities for worship. Being a multi-generational congregation means that we are attempting to equip and minister to different age groups with each group being of equal importance.  Being a congregation with multiple mission partners requires a new level of networking that demands discernment from both the ministry staff and congregational leadership.

I am especially interested in the proliferation of missional partnerships in recent years and the specific challenges and opportunities that proliferation presents.  Multiple mission partnerships seem to be the new norm among many churches, and especially churches who network with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  A quick survey of the list of CBF churches indicates that far fewer than 10% are exclusively identified with CBF.  Over 90% of churches who partner with CBF are networking with multiple mission partners, and the vast majority are supportive of missions through both CBF and SBC.

Is it worth the hassle of additional meetings and extended conversations to develop a missions portfolio that supports these multiple missional partners? A growing number of Baptist churches are re-visioning what it means to be “cooperative” and reconsidering exactly who needs to be in our portfolio of partnerships. 

The concept of multiple mission partnerships is not a new reality, just an expanded one. All of the Baptist churches I served early in my ministry had multiple mission partners.  Back then, however, the largest portion of a Baptist church’s mission budget went to one central clearinghouse called the Cooperative Program.  Partners receiving additional mission gifts included the local Baptist association, the Baptist Children’s Home, campus ministry organizations, the Gideons, and the American Bible Society, only to name a few. 

Across the years, the number of partners requesting to be in the church’s missional budget has grown dramatically.  I have observed at least four reasons for that increase:

  1. The number of missional organizations, institutions, and societies has grown exponentially.
  2. The Cooperative Program has undergone a significant process of reallocation.  A majority of Baptists continue to contribute to this unified portfolio, but the included entities and the leadership of those entities have been re-aligned. Agencies that were important to many Baptists were defunded.  For example, for many years the Baptist World Alliance was included in the Cooperative Program budget.  A few years ago the BWA was eliminated from the unified portfolio, but not without considerable dissent.  Therefore, those churches who choose to send missional support to the BWA must do so through an additional partnership. This is one of many examples of reallocation.
  3. The economic recession has compounded the requests for partnerships.  For example, more missionaries in cooperative networks, including SBC and CBF, are required or encouraged to raise a portion of their financial support independently from churches and individuals.
  4. There is a growing sense of independence and autonomy among Baptists that is reflective of American culture.  For example, individual Bible study groups want to choose “their” curriculum and individual churches want to choose who is in “their” missions budget.

After serving churches with a growing number of mission partners for the past few years, here are a few insights that could help those navigating the course:

  1. Have strong laity-led committees and teams, especially the Missions Committee and the Finance Committee, and keep them informed about the work of all mission partners.
  2. Invite representatives from your major mission partners to speak to your congregation.  For example, at our church we intentionally invite speakers from BWA, CBF, and SBC, since those are our major partners.
  3. Establish accountability with all mission partners, learning their missional objectives up front, and requesting reports of how funds were used to evaluate and determine future support.
  4. As a pastor, show fairness and balance to all partners, accenting the strengths of each partner, while realizing that each partner will also have weaknesses.
  5. Determine which partnerships are short-term (annual) and which partners will be long-term (multi-year commitments).
  6. Lead the congregation to provide prayer support, financial support, and ground support through short-term mission trips.  Those who work with our missionaries on site become our strongest advocates for missions.
  7. Create a culture of call wherein teenagers and adults are challenged to consider whether they are called to “go” to the mission field or to “support” those on the mission field.

The process for creating and assimilating the mission portfolio of a local congregation has changed across the years, and in some ways is more complex.  However, what has not changed is Baptists’ love and passion for missions.

To advance the kingdom, Baptists must learn to network in a world where communities of believers have a common core faith but diverse understandings and practices.  A spirit of cooperation propels missions.  A re-hashing of tired conflicts subverts missions.

In the movie, “Field of Dreams,” the thematic phrase about the construction of a baseball field is, “if you build it, they will come.”

When it comes to Baptists and missions, if you provide the information and the opportunity they will “give” and they will “go.”

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

Taking Care of the Caregiver

Caregiving is a ministry.  A caregiver is usually defined as an unpaid friend or family member who provides caring assistance for someone who suffers a long term physical or emotional illness.

As my wife and I have journeyed alongside members of our own families in their battles with cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, we have both experienced firsthand the benefits of caregivers and caregiving organizations.  And we are too well- acquainted with the personal toll of being a caregiver.

The NationalCenter for Caregiving says that “nearly one out of every four U.S. households (23 percent or 22.4 million households) is involved in caregiving to persons age 50 or over.

Those who need caregivers include persons suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer patients, accident victims who are in therapy or rehabilitation, the elderly, and those with mental disorders.

A recent survey by the National Family Caregivers Association, an organization dedicated to helping family caregivers, found that 48 percent of caregivers cared for spouses, 24 percent for parents, and 19 percent for children.  The survey also revealed that 85 percent of all home care is provided by family and friends.

In addition to becoming extremely tired or physically exhausted, caregivers often become anxious, distressed, or depressed.  If the friend or family member for which care is given declines in health or dies, the caregiver may go through a compounded or extended season of grief.

Caregivers need care also.  Caregivers must care for themselves and they must allow themselves to receive care and encouragement from a friend, from a support group, or from their church.

Various caregiving organizations offer suggestions for assisting individuals and groups in caring for caregivers.  One organization offers the following tips which may be helpful to caregivers:

  • Choose to take charge of your life, and don’t let your loved one’s illness or disability always take center stage.
  • Remember to be good to yourself.  Love, honor and value yourself. You’re doing a very hard job and you deserve some quality time, just for you.
  • Watch out for signs of depression, and don’t delay in getting professional help when you need it.
  • When people offer to help, accept the offer and suggest specific things they can do.
  • Educate yourself about your loved one’s condition. Information is empowering. 
  • There’s a difference between caring and doing.  Be open to technologies and ideas that promote your loved one’s independence.
  • Trust your instincts.  Most of the time they will lead you in the right direction.
  • Grieve for your losses, and then allow yourself to dream new dreams.
  • Stand up for your rights as a caregiver and a citizen.
  • Seek support from other caregivers. There is great strength in knowing you are not alone.

Caregiving is an appreciated ministry.  But taking care of the caregiver is also a valuable and necessary ministry.

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

Daily Bible Reading is a Life-Changing Practice

Often I am asked, “What can I do to grow as a Christian?”  There are several things that may help you grow in your faith but one of the most important things is to read the Bible everyday.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?  But developing a daily discipline of reading the Bible can be challenging because it requires changing our daily habits.  However, you are never too young or too old to start.

Over the past couple of years, I have worked on a study team of pastors and scholars who have been investigating the impact of “The Bible and Your Life.”  Responses to our survey indicate that reading the Bible privately once a week or more is the “game-changer” in putting faith into practice. Those who read the Bible privately on a regular basis are much more likely to look to the Bible for guidance in making life decisions than those who read the Bible seldom or never.

In analyzing the responses to our survey which indicate a strong correspondence between Bible reading and faith application, Dr. Penny Marler, professor of sociology at Samford University, surmises that, “In a world that presents us with many options and distractions, what we choose to spend our time doing says a great deal about what is important to us and the more we engage in a particular behavior, the more important it becomes.”

Consider some of the advantages of reading the Bible daily.  Daily Bible reading increases our knowledge of God’s word.  Regular Bible reading gives us a more intimate and personal acquaintance with the biblical text. It helps us to discern God’s plan for us. This daily discipline encourages us to integrate the teachings of the Bible into our daily lifestyle. Daily Bible reading confronts our personal sin and affirms God’s forgiveness. This practice inspires us toward faithfulness and consistency in all of our tasks. Reading the Bible daily helps us to understand the contextual meaning of passages whereas those who read the Bible only occasionally or who read only a selected verse or two are more likely to superimpose their own presuppositions on the text.  And finally, daily Bible reading helps keep your life and faith in focus.

Years ago, Lord Tennyson wrote, “Bible reading is an education in itself.”  Here are some helpful strategies to develop a daily Bible reading plan: 

¨      Begin by using a companion devotional guide.  Our Daily Bread, Open Windows, and the Upper Room are just a few examples of devotional booklets that include both a daily Bible reading selection and a few inspirational comments and stories. There are also a growing number of online devotional sites, such as www.d365.org, that provide relevant daily devotionals, and other sites that you can subscribe to that will send daily devotional readings directly to your inbox.

¨      Try reading the Bible book by book.  Some suggest alternating your reading between New Testament and Old Testament books.

¨      Read a chapter a day from the New Testament and the Old Testament plus a Psalm and one chapter of Proverbs.  This approach provides a balanced diet of biblical perspectives. And because Proverbs is divided into thirty-one chapters, it makes for good systematic reading because of its compatibility with our monthly calendar.

¨      Read the Bible in one year.  Many Christian publishing companies offer printed schedules for reading the Bible through in one year. The assignments for daily reading may prove challenging to slower readers but the rewards of knowledge and inspiration are definitely worth the challenge.

If you want to grow in your faith there are many practices that will enhance your spiritual maturity: daily prayer, regular worship participation, ethical decision-making, and ministry involvement.  But one of the best places to begin your journey of spiritual growth if you are a new Christian, or to deepen your faith if you are a maturing Christian, is to develop the discipline of reading the Bible daily.

In extolling the significance of Bible reading, Billy Graham proposes that, “The word of God hidden in the heart is a stubborn voice to suppress.” If you really want to put faith into practice, resolve to spend quality time reading the book every day.

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