Pastor Appreciation, Indeed!

Pastor Kyle was lamenting his job

As his head was starting to throb.

He was squeezing a sponge,

Had a toilet to plunge.

“I was hired to preach, not to swab!”

from Get Me To The Church In Rhyme
by Chuck Neighbors

 

October is pastor appreciation month.

The punchline to numerous jokes I have heard over the years is “the pastor only works one hour a week.”

Having worked in the world of the church for over 45 years, I can tell you that nothing is further from the truth. If the average pew-sitter could job-shadow a pastor they would quickly realize that the one hour a week is easily multiplied by 60 or 80 for most of the pastors I know.

As with my job as an actor, there is so much more that goes with the job beyond what the audience/congregation sees. A typical pastor, in addition to being a preacher, is also a: teacher, lesson planner, sermon writer, counselor, hospital chaplain, event planner, and board member with too many meetings.

Those are duties that one might anticipate as a part of the job and could account for the typical hours on the job for most vocations. But for so many pastors, their job also overlaps into other areas, forcing them to be an: administrator, secretary, bookkeeper, musician, deliveryman, cook, janitor, groundskeeper, handyman and plumber.

They probably didn’t sign up for those jobs.

Add to that the people skills need to deal with the various personalities in the church. Pastors are often caught in the middle of church politics, and shoulder the blame for anything that a church member might not like. Many pastors are lonely and feel isolated, often having no one to talk to about their problems. Having close friends within the congregation can be difficult causing more problems by sparking jealousy and envy among the members.

And don’t forget that pastors are often spouses with kids, and have a life beyond the four walls of the church building.  Like a doctor on call, congregation members call at all hours with real emergencies as well as a petty complaint. Way too many pastors are bi-vocational, unable to make a living on the salary paid to them by the church and forced to have a second job to pay the bills.

It’s a hard and often thankless job.

So take a moment to appreciate your pastor. Notice all the work they do beyond what you hear from the pulpit. Send a card, buy them a gift, take the broom out of their hands.

Pray for them.

Thank God for them.

Mixed Messages

On Palm Sunday it was a privilege to perform to over 5,000 people in three services at a church in the Los Angeles area. It has been a while since I shared with an audience this large and I have to say it was both exhilarating  and exhausting. Three in a row of Encounters, with a lot of emotional characters, takes a toll on the body.

After each performance I was happy to hear some great comments from people that sought me out to compliment my performance. One comment came up more than once:

“I have never seen anything like that before.”

It gave me pause and made me ponder what exactly they were referring to. Did they mean they had never seen an actor do a one-man show? Perhaps. Or did they mean they had never seen a dramatic performance in the place of a sermon on a Sunday morning. That seems more likely to me.

Their comments were a blessing and a reminder to me of the great gift the arts can be to the church. These listeners heard familiar stories from the life of Jesus told in new and different ways and it impacted them deeply.

The church continues to struggle—or maybe doesn’t struggle enough would be more accurate—when it comes to making room for the arts in the church. The response this last weekend gives me hope that progress is being made in this struggle.

After such a great weekend I was stopped in my tracks when I returned home. A very different response from another church awaited me. A pastor was hoping to schedule a performance this summer; we had the date penciled on the calendar and I was awaiting the formality of an approval from the church board. Then I received this email:

“It is with deep regret and personal disappointment that the Board decided to decline the opportunity.”

I pushed back. Often these things don’t pass the Board because of budgetary reasons. I asked if it was about the money. His response:

“It had nothing to do with money. There was just an expressed apathy. I showed them the clip you sent which I felt was incredibly powerful but apparently they did not share my perspective. I am both puzzled and frustrated. I am sad and disappointed and believe we have missed a wonderful opportunity.”

I am especially bothered by the word “apathy” as the reason. I would be more understanding if it were about the money, or “not appropriate for worship” or even what is even more typical, “we have never done anything like that before.”

Notice how close the phrases are:

“I have never seen anything like that before”

“We have never done anything like that before”

The first was an open door that brought new insight and spirtual impact to the listener.

The second is a closed door that resists change and settles for the status quo.

One step forward, one step back I suppose. (Uh-oh, was that a subliminal message about dancing in the church?)

Is it Live or…

Remember the old commercial with the slogan “Is it Live or is it Memorex?” The conclusion that Memorex wanted you to draw was that quality of the recording would be so good that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. That you would prefer the recorded music to a live performance.

Technology has come a long way since that commercial (1972). If we are talking about sound quality alone, a professional recording would be hard to match in a live performance these days.

As a professional performer with a focus on ministry these last 40 plus years, I have seen the tides change on the “live vs. recorded” question, especially in the area of drama. I have written about it a few times, most notably here. For the church today, the consensus seems to be that live performance is “out,” video is “in.” And why not? Quality video is easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive. You don’t have to worry about an actor forgetting lines, and you don’t have to move anything on the platform to accommodate a living room setting (sofa, coffee table, and lamp) for a scene that only lasts 5 minutes. It is rare to find a church today that does not use video in some form at their church services every week.

And yet I hear from people in churches all the time that they miss live performance. So I decided to conduct an informal poll on Facebook. I wanted to see if the perception were true that, due to cultural shifts, more people would prefer video to live performance. I asked this question:

Informal poll for my church-going friends:

A pastor has decided he wants to launch his next sermon series with a powerful 5-minute dramatic scene. He has the option of having two professional actors perform the scene live, or those same two actors perform the scene on video. Both options will be professional in every way. Would you prefer the “live” option or the “video” option?

(along with your answer would you give your age group with a simple: teens, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s?) Additional comments are welcome.”

There was great participation, with over 135 people responding to the question on 3 different FB sites in 24 hours.

Here are the results:

  • Prefer Live: 77%
  • Prefer Video: 17%
  • It Depends or 50/50: 6%
  • 75% of responses were people between the ages of 50-70.
  • 25% of those in the age 60’s category preferred video.
  • Of the 31 responses in the age of 40 or younger, 80% preferred live to video.

I know this not scientific. There is a bias in that most responders were in an age bracket closer to mine (between 50-70). It would be interesting to see how a mostly millennial sampling would have responded. And because of my connections in the arts, there are more responses from people in the performing arts than you might find in a more random poll. One responder questioned if the responses favored “live” over “video” because I, a theater person, was asking the question, rather than a person who does video for a living asking the question. Fair question and I am sure the results were skewed some because of that, but I don’t think that the vast majority were answering the question to satisfy the poller.

Note that there are also several pastors responding to the poll. One of the more interesting responses from a pastor was this:

Live would be more impacting, BUT, as a pastor I would have to consider the actors afterwards. Will the focus be on them and their performance? Would the video allow the people to more easily integrate it into my message?”

The implication being that the live performance might “upstage” the sermon. I have long suspected that a pastor might feel that way, but had never heard someone actually verbalize it.

There were a few other surprises. There were some theater people that I would have suspected would choose “live” who actually preferred “video.”

Many of those who chose video over live cited more practical reasons dealing with “easier for more people so see and hear in a large auditorium” as opposed to the artistic impact on the audience. And there were many who, rightly so, said it would all depend on the actual piece; that some pieces would translate better on video than live.

I am frankly surprised at the results. I would have expected video to come out ahead, given the shift in how often it is used in the church. But maybe the overuse of video has a lot to do with these responses.

My take-away is that the shift away from live performance in so many churches today does not reflect the preference of the people in the audience. Many have suggested that this is a pendulum swing and that live performance will once again come back.  Me, I’m not so sure.

What do you think?

In the meantime, let me know if I can come to you “live.” No Memorex, I promise!

Your Stories are the Best Stories.

Group of people watching boring movie in cinema

I was excited to hear a well-known author and speaker address a conference I was attending. I’d read this man’s books and had always been impressed with his stories and his ability to craft words in ways that move and inspire people.

As he got up to speak, my expectations fell like a rock. He opened his talk with a joke. A joke I had heard numerous times before. The audience laughed…but it was a “polite” laugh, giving me the impression that I was not the only one who had heard that joke before. He went on with his talk, and it was a good talk, but couldn’t get past the fact that this renowned speaker and master wordsmith would open with a joke.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to share a meal with another author and speaker. In the course of our conversation we were both laughing almost constantly with funny stories about our lives, travels, and families. At one point in the conversation he said, “I got rid of all my sermon illustration books. I discovered that I had more illustrations from my own life that were infinitely better than the ones in those books.”

It is not that those other illustrations were bad, and perhaps some were more dramatic or funny than his own stories, but they were not “his” stories. He discovered that his personal stories had more impact, humor and relevance than another person’s stories. When he told his stories there was a ring of authenticity that made the listener connect and want to hear more.

As I have watched the really good comedians over the years, my favorites are always the ones that focus on telling their own stories or observations, not telling jokes.

It is not that I don’t enjoy a good joke; in fact telling jokes was one of the ways I discovered my talent and ability as a performer. But I have learned, like my author/speaker friend has learned, that there is great power in telling your own stories.

So the next time you are preparing a speech, sermon, or emcee, don’t go digging through illustration books. Just spend a bit of time looking at a diary, photo album, old Facebook posts or even looking in a mirror. Trust me, there is some great material there!

(I’d love to share some of my stories with your church or organization. Check out Truth Be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up or Go Ask Your Mother…a Father’s Story!)

When Transparency and Authenticity become TMI! –

I Wish You Hadn’t Told Me That!

“I really liked your transparency in the sharing of your story.”

I appreciated the compliment. I had just finished sharing my presentation of “Go Ask Your Mother… A Father’s Story.”  In the presentation I share some of my personal struggles as a father in raising my three boys, as well as some reflections on my own father.

The compliment affirmed my goal and belief that telling honest stories based on real life experience would connect and communicate with my audience. Yes, I had been transparent… up to a point… but I didn’t really tell the whole story. There were parts that I purposely didn’t share. Parts that I held back because I didn’t want the whole truth about me to be revealed. Parts that I felt would have been TMI–too much information!

When sharing about my Dad, I didn’t share the details of the angry thoughts I had when I felt he was being too hard on me.

When sharing about my sons, I didn’t share about the times my temper got the best of me and I said some things I regret and came close to striking them in anger.

There were thoughts and actions in some of those stories that I left out because to reveal them could have caused my audience to turn against me… to not like me. I am all for honesty and transparency until it goes to a place that is too dark and makes me look bad. Especially if the story doesn’t redeem those thoughts and actions.

Is it possible to be too honest? Too transparent? Where does one draw the line?

Have you ever been watching a good movie and then have to turn your head away in disgust because the images on the screen were too disturbing? It’s a good story but why did the have to show that?! Sometimes the details of our stories can have that same effect on our audience.

I remember a sermon where the pastor shared some of his personal story. It was great up until he shared some of his thoughts that went a little too far. As we left the church my wife said “I wish I hadn’t heard that part.” The part he shared was a little too dark and now her feelings about that pastor will be forever changed because he shared too much information. It would have been fine if he had alluded to his dark thoughts, but in sharing them in detail, he crossed a boundary. He created a distraction that caused some in the audience to miss the point of the story.

Who among us hasn’t had those dark thoughts? Who among us hasn’t done things we regret? It’s part of being human. We get angry, we get greedy, we get tempted, we lust, we sin.  When it comes to casting the first stone, I would be one of the first to walk away.

It is good to share some of these stories with others. Some of my favorite stories are stories where the teller reveals their humanity, their weakness, their faults. It is what makes it relatable. I identify and it feels good to know that I am not alone. It helps me to realize that I’m not the only one who struggles, who fails, and who gets back up again after being knocked down.

But sometimes in the public telling we can go too far.

Authenticity is a cherished virtue in our culture today. Look at reality TV, the Internet and social media. We have a constant stream of “reality” hitting us from every angle. Sometimes this can be a good thing. But it can also distract us from the main point. Like watching that gory scene in the movie it’s TMI! Too much information!

Some stories are best served with some details left out. They are better for confessing to a close friend, a doctor… or to God. You don’t want your audience to walk away with things they can’t un-see or un-hear!

The Trouble with Labels

Sign_Theatrical SermonI cringed when I saw the sign in front of the church:
Chuck Neighbors Theatrical Sermon

The image that leaped into my mind was not one I wanted to embrace. First I don’t really think of what I do as a sermon, and second a theatrical sermon conjures up the very worst of what I would expect from a televangelist.

When I walked into the church one lady asked me:
“Are you our entertainer?”

I stuttered…

I realized I had not communicated clearly with this church what it is that I do… but then, when it comes to what I do, it is not easy to articulate in a way that everybody understands. I’m an actor, yes; I’m a storyteller, yes. I do most of my performing in the context of a worship service, but I’m not a preacher. Giving a “sermon” is not what we are accustomed to seeing done by people who bill themselves as actors and storytellers. I’m a minister, yes–but not to be confused with the acting and storytelling done by pastors in the pulpit week after week.

SigncollageAm I an entertainer? Yes… but if I told people I was an entertainer they would be very hesitant to book me, especially in place of a sermon during the worship service.

The trouble with labels.

Sometimes I feel like Rodney Dangerfield when he said, “I get no respect.” In the world of the church one needs to have the title “pastor” or “minister” to be qualified to speak behind the pulpit and give a sermon. In the world of the theater, one can hardly be a “legitimate actor” if their audience is the church. Preaching and theater are often at odds with each other. I have come to detest the dreaded “what do you do for a living?” question. How I would love to have a simple answer like waiter, letter carrier, doctor, sales person. Those are pretty clear-cut. My answers stumble out more like “I’m an actor, but…” or “I’m a minister, but…”

That also spins me around again to the question of defining who I am by what I do, a trap most of us fall into. We mistake what we do for who we are, and not just in the area of our work. Those labels can define parts of us, but not the whole of who we are. I’m also a father, a son, a husband, a writer, a traveler, and a not-very-good occasional golfer. I am a Christian—and there is a label that has become very confusing and divisive lately. I’ve noticed that more and more Christians are becoming uncomfortable with that label—a lot of people are struggling to find a different word or words to use instead of “Christian.” A “Christ follower,” a “believer,” a “disciple of Jesus.” All good labels, but labels can mean different things to different people and they can change over time depending on what attributes we associate with the labels. To some, the word “entertainer” would imply that you work in Las Vegas. Lately, thanks to shifts in our culture, it seems the word “Christian” means you must hate something. We keep adding and modifying our labels to try to be more accurate in describing who we are, what we do, and what we believe. It is making our conversations clumsy.

I’m an actor… but
I’m a minister…but
I’m a Christian… but

The “but” negates what comes before it. Maybe it is time to practice a principle I learned in improvisational acting called “yes, and.” The point is you are not allowed to reject anything when building a scene through improvisation, but rather accept and build to the next thing.

Wouldn’t that make for interesting conversations?

I’m an actor, yes and…
I’m a minister, yes and…
I’m a Christian, yes and…

What would you put after the “and” in your labels?

To Memorize or Not To Memorize

I went to see a performance of an actor performing a straight scripture presentation.  He was a good performer and commanded the stage well.  But after a while I found my  mind drifting. When he finished reciting scripture, he told a story about his own life and totally drew me in.  He was so much more interesting to listen to when he just shared his story than when he was quoting from a book of the Bible.

I left feeling conflicted.  I actually felt a bit of guilt at having lost interest during the presentation of scripture.  I mean, this was God’s Word after all! I also pondered why I found his story more compelling than his actual performance.  My conclusions:

  • When he was reciting scripture he sounded “memorized.” And while I am an advocate for memorized lines, I don’t like it when a performer sounds memorized. Memorized lines, be they in a play, scripture, speech or sermon, should sound natural and conversational. To the audience it needs to sound like you are saying these words for the very first time. (For a great example of an actor performing scripture and sounding natural check out my associate Steve Wilent in According to John.)

    Steve Wilent in According to John

  • When he told his story, it felt spontaneous and authentic. I didn’t get the feeling it was a script. Since it was his story, he knew it well so there was no danger of not knowing what to say next (as in a forgotten line). I cared more about what he had to say because it was more personal.

In my previous blog I addressed memorization from an actor’s perspective. Actors must memorize lines word for word in a script.  But what if you are speaking or giving a sermon? Does that text need to be memorized?

The answer…. it depends.

If you are a speaker who is giving the same, or mostly the same, speech or sermon to different groups on a speaking circuit, you will probably want to memorize it.  Truth is, you probably have memorized it… maybe even without trying.  You will work with the text and wind up saying the same thing over and over again.  This can actually be a very good thing… providing you don’t start to sound memorized! You will also learn and tweak your presentation as you gain experience. You learn, for example, that phrasing a sentence a certain way gets a better response (a laugh, applause, or stunned silence).

But what about those of you who are pastors coming up with a new sermon every week? While a few of you may actually memorize the sermon, most of you don’t. My hat’s off to you who come up with new material week after week.  The challenge before you is to present your material in a compelling way. Since you are not memorized by rote, there is not much danger of your sounding memorized.  But neither do we want to see you simply read to us with your focus on your notes instead of your audience.  It is important that, while you may not be memorized, you need to really know your material. So in a sense some of the rote memorization techniques of reading the material over and over again can certainly be of benefit.

I am always impressed with those pastors who can deliver a powerful sermon without notes!  I chatted with one of them recently about how he does it.  As a storyteller, it was no big surprise that much of the technique he employed involved translating the text into story. Much of the memory technique involved linking images to the text and thus allowing the pastor to be note-free and greatly enhance his ability to connect with the audience.  This video helps to explain the memory system he uses:

Actors, comedians, and professional speakers all know the value of rehearsal.  In talking to pastors I find that many of them also rehearse their sermons, and… many of them don’t.  I can usually tell the difference.  I know you are busy people, but  I encourage you to find the time to rehearse your sermons.  In our increasingly entertainment-oriented culture, with our increasingly shorter attention spans, your challenge is to hold our attention.  To do that effectively takes practice!

Pastors, do you memorize your sermons?  What tips can you share for effective sermon presentations?

Those Comfort Zones

The “comfort zone.” What comes to your mind when you hear those words? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

I guess it depends.
For me, when I am doing something that is outside my area of expertise, like say, almost anything to do with home improvement projects, I’m outside my comfort zone. And according to my wife, Lorie, it needs to stay that way. Just let me mention tackling some project that involves a power tool and she is picking up the phone to call a professional. It’s okay…I know where my gifts are, and Home Depot is not going to get wealthy off people like me.
Some people have comfort zones in places that they probably shouldn’t. Like, say, Lorie and the mall (sorry dear). You ask me, she is way too comfortable there. While she is in her comfort zone on a shopping spree, I am forced outside my comfort zone when the bills come in. It makes me very uncomfortable to spend money on women’s shoes. Can somebody explain to me what it is with women and shoes?
Then there are those comfort zones that are good things. Things like spending quality time with family and friends. Doing things you enjoy that fall within your area of interest or expertise; be they things like teaching, coaching, cooking and for some even using power tools.
When you go in for surgery it is reassuring to know that the operating room is a comfort zone for your doctor–but not too comfortable. (It’s not a good sign if CNN is playing on the monitor.)
I have another comfort zone. It is a big blue recliner in front of our TV. Put me there and nothing gets done that needs doing.
Ah, yes, doing things that need to get done… Sometimes we avoid doing things we know we should do because they fall outside our comfort zone–they are easy to avoid for that very reason. But just because something is outside our comfort zone, is right to avoid it all together?
Some people don’t go to church because it makes them uncomfortable. I am hesitant to go to certain group events because being around a bunch of strangers makes me uncomfortable–my wife’s company Christmas party, for example.
Doing something–anything–differently can cause a cause a ripple in our comfort zone. I wrote a short play called “The Comfort Zone” about a family trying to come to terms with the worship styles that exist in our culture today. You see, there’s this church in town that crowds their comfort zone. One of the things that makes this family uncomfortable is the fact that this church does drama in their worship services on a regular basis. (I’ll bet you were wondering when I was going to get around to talking about drama!)
Drama can cause ripples. It can be uncomfortable to see ourselves portrayed on the stage. It can make us laugh and cry–both things that can make people uncomfortable (especially the crying). Sometimes it contains so much truth that it can unsettle an entire audience‹very uncomfortable–but it can be a very good thing! The very concepts of change and growth are not comfortable thoughts, but necessary and good, nonetheless.
I love it when people tell me they didn’t enjoy my performance. You read it right, that wasn’t a typo. I said I love it when people tell me they didn’t enjoy my performance.
Okay, let me give it some context. Of course I want people to enjoy my performances. However, I like watching people struggle for the right words to say to me–especially after a performance of In His Steps. Here is one exchange that I have heard many times:
Audience Member: “Thank you, I enjoyed that…well, ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word. You are very good at what you do. . . but I didn’t enjoy it. It challenged me. . . made me think. . . made me very uncomfortable…”

Bingo! Score one for God! I feel that I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing when I can make people uncomfortable. Perhaps now that person will be motivated to do something outside their comfort zone in service to God. Yea!
Do you tell your pastor that you enjoyed his sermon? Don’t do it! He probably feels he failed when you do that. Try telling him you hated his sermon and watch him perk right up! He doesn’t preach for your enjoyment. The same can be said for this ministry through drama. I don’t do this for your enjoyment or your entertainment. (Although I do hope that it is enjoyable and entertaining to watch) I do this because I want to encourage, to challenge, and yes, if necessary, to make you uncomfortable!

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