Karl Vaters believes your church can be healthy regardless of its size. This 30-year ministry veteran pastors Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif., and has emerged as a champion of the small church through his book The Grasshopper Mythand the blog Pivot hosted by Christianity Today.
But that rosy outlook on small-church life was years in the making. It was born from a near-burnout experience when his congregation “grew” from 400 to well below 100 in just nine months. That’s when Karl said out loud the words that shocked his staff and surprised himself: “We’ve got to stop thinking like a big church.”
Zach Szmara has been pastor at The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Ind., since 2012. During that time, a tiny, dying, monocultural church in a declining community has been transformed into a growing, multicultural, multilingual congregation that is a cultural center of its city and the hub of the largest Protestant-church-based network of legal aid for undocumented aliens trying to normalize their immigration status.
Pastor Zach Szmra
But this story of remarkable success followed a hard landing after serving on the mission field that left Zach and his wife, Lyndy, emotionally broken, their marriage hanging by a thread.
Stan Toler is an international speaker and best-selling author, but he’s best known as a pastor to pastors. In a ministry career spanning 50 years, he’s held nearly every role in the church from youth pastor to general superintendent. His more than 100 books have sold over 3 million copies, and he keeps a travel and speaking schedule of over 100 dates per year.
Yet a cancer diagnosis nearly brought his international ministry to a screeching halt. In this interview, Stan opens up about dealing with illness and the challenge of keeping a positive attitude in the most demanding profession in the world.
Stan, welcome to Encouraging Pastors.
Thanks so much. It’s a great blessing to be here.
You’ve been in ministry for over 50 years now. What’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed over your career?
One of the major things that has changed has to do with expectations. Churches that I started out pastoring expected pastors to do just about everything, including visiting in the homes of parishioners. They expected pastors to provide all care and ministry to the congregation. Now we see more shared ministry through teams and staffing. I was an early staff member as a college student, serving with John C. Maxwell, so I came to appreciate the value of staff ministry very early. I think that’s taken some pressure off the lead pastor.
So you see the changing role of the pastor in a positive way?
Absolutely. Larger churches have greatly influenced the inclusion of the laity in ministry, and that’s changed expectations on pastors for the better.
What’s the biggest challenge pastors are facing right now?
I think it comes down to the issue of how the church relates to the culture around it—deciding what their approach will be. Do you conform to the culture or do you engage the culture? That’s a fine line to walk, and it’s complicated by the fact that we have raised a generation of biblical illiterates. Without speaking disparagingly of anyone, I make the point that it’s hard to simply tell people “The Bible says” and expect to get buy-in because people don’t have that background.
So what’s the solution?
In my view, we need to engage the culture. I’ve just read Meet Generation Z by James Emery White, subtitled Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World. I highly recommend this book. White is a pastor from North Carolina, and I think he’s engaging the culture very effectively while boldly proclaiming Scripture. Apologetics is the way to reach the generation that has limited biblical knowledge. Read this book. It’ll both frighten and encourage you.
Some of our readers know you’ve been facing a real personal challenge this year. Are you willing to give us an update on your health?
I’d be happy to. Seven months ago I was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the common bile duct. That’s in the area of the pancreas. The doctors said I would need surgery but would have chemotherapy first. So far I’ve had 12 treatments, and the latest CT scan revealed good progress. The doctor even approved a light speaking schedule, so for the last seven weeks I’ve preached somewhere on a Sunday. I’m feeling much better, and I believe this is a miracle in the making—though I still need a lot of prayer.
Stan and Linda Toler with the Toler family
That’s so good to hear. I know a lot of parsonage families are dealing with health issues. What would you say to a pastor who is facing a serious illness, or has one in his family?
Well, I’ve found out that you have to live what you preach. I’ve talked about keeping faith through hard times—and even wrote a book about the power of a positive attitude. Let me tell you, I’ve been learning that lesson in a new way.
I keep reminding myself that God’s in charge of the whole universe, including my life. I know Jesus is the resurrection and the life. I’m not afraid.
I’m sure there must have been some tough moments in that journey though.
There sure were. I remember the day my doctor told me I probably ought to start a bucket list. That’ll get your attention in a hurry. But you know, I went home and sat down with Linda and my boys, Seth and Adam, and their wives, and I said, “I don’t need a bucket list. I’m doing what I want to be doing right now.”
I’ve spoken in 90 countries and in all 50 states; if I never preach another sermon, I’ll be all right. I have my down moments, like when treatments were debilitating and it appeared I wasn’t responding to it. But I know I’ve done what matters most with my life, and I’m doing it now by being close to my family.
I was called to ministry when . . .
I was seven years old. We were having a revival in a little coal mining camp called Baileysville, W. Va. On the last night of a three-week protracted meeting, as we used to call them, nine boys including me surrendered to the call to preach. I began preaching when I was 14, and took my first pastorate at age 17.
We talk about self-care for pastors, and your self-care is decidedly physical right now.
It is, but for me it always has been. Very early in my ministry I started to put on some weight, and I became very concerned with a eating right and keeping healthy. I have dutifully exercised since then, and I now use a Fitbit. Even with my health as it is, I have a step goal every day. My all around good health has worked in my favor. Doctors have told me that’s playing a big part in my recovery. So take care of your health. You may need it to take care of you sometime.
What advice would you give to a younger pastor, perhaps in his or her first assignment?
I think basically I have three words for them. First, listen. Listen before you make a lot of moves or establish new initiatives. Listen to the people. Hear what they have to say and give it a few months. Second, reflect. Reflect on what they’re saying to you and only then make decisions and changes. Finally, act. You’ve got to determine what to do about the future based on what you’ve learned. It can take up to three years before you get a handle on the culture and know what to do.
What advice would you give to a veteran pastor, perhaps in his or her last assignment?
I truly believe that as you mature in ministry, you have more to offer. You do your best work in that phase of your career. Build on what you’ve learned and focus on the things that will make a difference. You’ll be more effective because you can sift through the things that don’t matter and put your energy toward those that bring the best result.
After 50 years, do you still get excited about pastoral ministry?
I do, and one of the reasons is that my health challenge has shown me the value of my work for the Lord. I feel like I’ve gotten a little taste of heaven, hearing from the many people who’ve said I impacted their lives over the years. I’ve gotten letters, texts, phone calls, social media messages—from people stretching back to youth camp days. Some found Christ through my preaching. Some said I strengthened their faith or confirmed their call to ministry.
I think pastors need to think about that when things aren’t going so well. That’s when the enemy pounces on you. Just keep encouraging others, and know that your work has had an impact you may never see in this life.
This site is about encouraging pastors. Anything you want to say to encourage a pastor today?
Don’t quit! In the video The Power of Your Attitude I tell the story of wearing my dad’s old Timex watch every Monday. As I wind that watch, I think about Dad and what he taught me, and I make a deliberate choice to have hope. I call it my “Resignation Prevention Kit.”
I’d tell pastors to never resign in a hurry, and never on a Monday. Choose hope, and build some strong routines into your life that give you stability during the ups and downs.
Stan, thanks for being a friend and encourager to pastors.
Thank you, friend. I just want to pass along the gifts the Lord has given me.
Your church website conveys lots of messages about your congregation, including some you may not be aware of. That’s particularly true when it comes to presenting pastor and staff member information.
While visiting hundreds of church websites in connection with a research project, I discovered that there is no such thing as a typical church site. I’ve seen everything from high-end, custom designs to Facebook pages to no web presence at all. Yes, really. About 24 percent of the churches I examined had no web presence.
Likewise, there’s a gamut of approaches to presenting information about the senior leader and staff (or not).
All of them are fine, so long as you know who you are and what you’re communicating through your pastor’s bio. I’m convinced that many pastors have little idea what the “Our Staff” page actually says about them and their congregations.
The standard advice to pastors these days is that they should under no circumstances do pastoral care. That’s been de rigueur in leadership circles since the late ’80s when John Maxwell began telling church growth conferees, “I don’t do hospital calls.”
The theory is that anybody can do pastoral care, so the pastor’s time is better spent energizing the leaders within the congregation. The sooner the pastor hands off hospital calling to small group leaders, the sooner the church will break attendance barriers.
Pastoral ministry doesn’t scale, which is why it’s taboo among pastors who style themselves as (or already are) leaders of a large organization. There’s no way for one person to do all the pastoral care for a congregation of 20,000 people. It’s a black hole that sucks time and energy without adding to attendance, so successful pastors avoid it.
I couldn’t care less.
Ministry of Word and sacrament is the primary task of a pastor. Here’s why every single one of them should be a pastoral care giver.
Yesterday a gunman entered a community college classroom in Oregon, shot and killed the teacher, then told students to stand up, one by one, and state their religion.
To those who said Christian, he replied “Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second.” He killed 10 people.1
As a minister, as a Christian, as a citizen of the United States, I’m appalled by this senseless act of violence, by the Charleston shooting, by the 262 other mass shootings in our country this year, and by the culture that supports it.