Love God and love your neighbors. In the Great Commandment, Jesus boiled 613 commands down to these two. He went on to say, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV). In other words, if Jesus’ followers do anything, they should focus on these two things. The Neighboring Life focuses on the second commandment in order to follow the first one.
Who is My Neighbor?
The act of taking time to learn a neighbor’s name demonstrates obedience to Jesus’ command. Once a believer knows their neighbor’s name, then they can pray for their neighbor. Pray for their lives, their families, their jobs, and even an opportunity to get to know them better.
Neighboring is also serving next door neighbors. By offering a helping hand, often the next step is offering a listening ear. “We love our neighbors because we are Christians, not because we are trying to make them Christians,” says Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, co-authors of The Neighboring Church. “We need to stop hijacking the endgame with other things. It happens so subtly. We love our neighbors so they will go to church. We love our neighbors so they will join our small group…Those motives turn people to be loved into projects to be directed…People will know when they are a project.”
The Neighboring Life is the creation of Rick Rusaw, Brian Mavis, and the team at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, CO. Built on the foundation of The Externally-Focused Church, co-authored by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson (Group Publishing 2004), LifeBridge along with many other churches, has sought to transition ministry from missional, community-wide, Service Day approaches to a more granular form of ministry. Rather than donning matching t-shirts, serving for one day, and making local headlines, The Neighboring Life is a daily, personal experience with one’s neighbors. More importantly, it adds the relationship component to serving.
“The bridge between being missional and incarnational is relationship,” according to Scott Campbell, The Ascent Church, Colorado Springs, CO. “You can be missional without being relational. You can’t be incarnational without relationship: ‘love neighbors as you love yourself.’”
“For years [LifeBridge Church] had been getting into the stream of our community to serve. A city employee asked if we would take care of a woman’s yard for her. I said I would look at the situation and get back to her,” said Brian Mavis. “As I was driving up, I spotted the house from blocks away. They weren’t exaggerating. The grass was almost as tall as I was. I knocked on the door and a woman in her young thirties answered. Standing next to her was a little girl. I learned that this woman had recently survived stage-four cancer, and she was taking care of the nine-year-old girl, who was in foster care. This woman was tearful and embarrassed about her yard, but she said her health prevented her from trying to take care of it.
“My heart broke for her, and I was happy that our church was going to help her. I gathered a dozen people and they brought their own equipment. A few hours later we had the yard looking almost as good as new. We came back the next week to put down some mulch. We prayed for the homeowner, and we felt great about what we had done. I was proud of our people, and I was glad the city knew they could call us and count on us to take care of it.
“Over the next year, I called the woman a couple of times to see how she was doing. After the second call, while I was silently congratulating myself, the Holy Spirit said, ‘This is nothing to be proud of. This should never have even happened.’ I immediately knew the full meaning of this gentle rebuke by God. The woman’s grass should never have grown more than six inches tall.”
What should have been done differently? “First,” said Mavis, “I wouldn’t just ask a dozen people from our church. Instead, I would look to see who lived near her. We have several families within a couple blocks of her house. I would’ve called them and asked them to help me help their neighbor. Then I thought I would go one better. I would ask them to help me, but I would also ask them to knock on their neighbors’ doors, no matter if they were Christian or not, and invite them to join in helping this woman…If the church had done a better job of helping our people learn to love their neighbors, then I never would’ve received a phone call from the city in the first place…For years our church was serving the community, but were we loving our neighbors?”
A dilapidated house or an unkempt yard are easily recognizable signs of a family in crisis. But, not all needs are revealed from the curb. Needs are revealed as neighbors are known. Since neighboring is not a program and neighbors aren’t projects, the focus on neighboring is more of a spiritual discipline than a ministry initiative. Neighboring is moving life from the backyard to the front yard. It’s taking time for a neighbor when they are outside. The heart of neighboring is putting others ahead of oneself.
Neighboring requires no special talent. Anyone can be a neighbor. Neighboring does require a shift in thinking for pastoral leadership. Emphasis is given on scattering equal to the emphasis on gathering. This is not to discount the value of gathering, but to balance receiving and giving.
Stay, Pray, Play, and Say
Neighboring almost seems to harken back to years gone by when neighbors knew everyone and helped each other. It was the norm. Today, the norm is cellphones, garage door openers, and quiet streets in neighborhoods. Neighboring requires intentional effort.
The practices of neighboring are simple, yet significant. They can be summoned up in four words: Stay, Pray, Play, and Say. Stay means being available to get to know one’s neighbors. It’s stopping to talk to a neighbor instead of hitting the garage door button. Maybe it means sitting on the front porch instead of the back porch. Pray means praying for neighbors. Praying for both neighbors who are known and those who are unknown. Praying for opportunities to connect and serve. Play is offering hospitality to neighbors from dinner invitations to backyard barbecues to small scale events. The fourth word is say. When the opportunity arises, Christian neighbors are prepared to share Christ with their fellow neighbors. This isn’t the completion of the “project.” This is the start of a new journey.
Leaders Go First
As with any focus, leaders go first. Pastors and church staff can prepare to lead neighboring in their churches by starting to neighbor themselves. Resources such as The Neighboring Church by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, and Becoming a Neighboring Church, a six session study by the LifeBridge team with its companion video are a couple of ways to get ideas on leading a community-wide movement in neighboring. Other resources include The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, Neighborhood Initiative and the Love of God by Lynn Cory, and Neighborhood Mapping by Dr. John Fuder among others.
Once pastors and staff have some experience with neighboring, the entire church can be engaged with The Neighboring Life study and companion video used as a church-wide campaign, group study, or individual study. These resources are available at TheNeighboringLife.com.
Jacob & Mary Alice: An Unlikely Pair
Ever since his wife’s death, 80-year-old Jacob called his neighbor, Mary Alice, regularly. Somehow Mary Alice had broken the ice with this self-proclaimed “crotchety old Jewish man who doesn’t make friends easily.” The two were quite a pair in the neighborhood: a mom of two teenagers chatting the ear off the grumpy old man.
When Jacob’s number came up on caller ID, she answered it, but on this evening, when she picked up the phone Jacob wasn’t talking but she could hear difficulty in his breathing. Rushing over to his house, she found Jacob at the bottom of the stairs and quickly called 911. The paramedic in the ambulance, the emergency room receptionist, the technicians drawing blood, and the doctor all asked her, “Are you his daughter?”
“No, I am just his neighbor” she answered every time, as she kept Jacob calm and answered their questions about his past medical history. As Mary Alice left the emergency room after Jacob was fully stabilized, the doctor asked her with a smile, “Will you be MY neighbor?”
Neighboring requires no special talent. There are no scripts or methods to follow. The heart of neighboring is taking an interest in one’s neighbors. Pastors can start their own neighboring movements by encouraging their members to take a few minutes to talk to their neighbors when they see them outside. This might be an introduction to a new neighbor or a bit of an apology for living next door for so long and having never met. This shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should be a start.
As churches embrace neighboring, any step toward a neighbor: a conversation, a meal, a prayer, or an act of service should be celebrated. What pastors tell stories about will cast vision to their congregations.
If pastors are ready to get serious about neighboring, then some tough questions must be answered – How can you be the best church for your community rather than just the best church in your community? What if you got better at the two things Jesus said mattered the most – loving God and loving your neighbor? How can the church put equal energy into scattering into the community as they do gathering for weekend worship services?
If your members move out of their neighborhoods, would they be missed?
By Allen White
By Allen White
When I started talking about writing a book on small groups, I often encountered a reaction that went like this: “Really, another small group book? What else is there to say?” Truth be told, I would have thought the exact same thing. People who are smarter and more experienced than me had written really great books. What was left to say?
Then, I began to notice some things in the church world. These weren’t hidden things, but there were certainly needs. This is why I wrote Exponential Groups.
I Saw Pastors Who Were Stuck.
Some of these pastors had tried groups and failed. I’ve been there. Others connected 30 percent of their congregations into groups, then once they had the low hanging fruit, they began to spin their wheels. I’ve also been there. Others were stuck at 50 percent, and then others were stuck at 65 percent. Quite a few had topped 100 percent of their congregation in groups for a church-wide study, but then watched their numbers slide once the series was over. That doesn’t feel very good. I’ve had that feeling too.
I remember reading about a chef (stay with me), who through all of his failures and frustrations learned to not only properly make sauces, but also to teach others to make sauces. If the trainee’s sauce didn’t turn out correctly, then the chef knew exactly where the young cook had made the mistake, because the chef had failed at every point of making the sauce himself over the years. This is how I feel about groups ministry.
I remember launching 10 groups in January 1994 and seeing them all end in December 1994. I know exactly why that happened. The same for getting stuck with only 30 percent of our adults in groups after seven years of building groups. (By the way, 30 percent is a very common place for groups to get stuck). And, I have stories for every other place listed above. What I’ve discovered is my education in the school of hard knocks as well as working through the frustration that eventually helped me find success is the most valuable thing I can give any pastor and church. It’s very gratifying to me to watch what was once my ceiling become other pastors’ floors.
I Saw Christians Who Were Comfortable.
Back when we invited people to seeker services, often we encouraged folks to “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the service.” When we eventually came around to ask these folks to serve, we discovered they had taken us up on our offer to get comfortable at church. While this isn’t true of every church and every believer, it is true of many. Comfort prevents growth — personal growth, ministry growth, and church growth.
For the most part people grow when they are going through a painful circumstance or when they take a risk. Let’s face it: we are all more motivated to pray while we’re facing a problem than when things are calm. I quickly realized that Discipleship through Suffering was not going to catch on very quickly. But, what if we challenged people to take a risk? Could they leave their comfort and try something a little risky for a short period of time? More people jumped at the opportunity than I thought possible. There is a way to grow your church and grow your people without wrecking the whole thing.
I Saw a Sleeping Giant and a World in Need.
Our guests became an audience. Audiences must be entertained or else they will find another church that is more entertaining. It’s as if the American church has retired.
Francis Chan said the American church is not “good soil,” but is really “thorny ground.” We live in an age of constant distraction. It’s an era of convenience. Even though people are busy by their own choice, what they invest their lives in typically has little to do with the Kingdom. Why?
For one, they may not know and understand the significance of God’s work. But, as Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, AL said this last week at the ARC conference, “Growth is not an option as long as Heaven and Hell are realities.” But, this leads to another problem — many Christians perceive ministry as another thing to add on to their already busy lives. They just don’t have time. But, what if ministry could be done with the friends they have during the activities they are already doing? Where’s the excuse?
Well, then they might say, “I’m not a leader. I’m not a teacher.” Give them a video-based curriculum. They don’t have to be the teacher, and you don’t have to worry about what they might teach a group of friends. The teaching came from you. If they can gather their friends for the video teaching, then they are leaders whether they give themselves that title or not.
Audiences must be entertained. But, what if we saw our church members as an army? An army must be equipped and empowered. An army must be led. What if we could awaken the sleeping giant of the American church, call them out of retirement, and give them new marching orders? What if they began to depend on God and each other instead of borrowing from their pastors’ spirituality?
If you’re willing to try something new, I wrote a book for you.
By Allen White
Steve Merriman is the CEO and Enrolled Agent at Clergy Advantage, Loveland, CO. Steve has worked with ministers and churches for 40 years and works with over 6,000 ministers including Rick Warren, Saddleback Church; Rick Rusaw, LifeBridge Christian Church; Tim Harlow, Parkview Christian Church; and Nelson Searcy, The Journey Church. You can connect with Steve and his staff at clergyadvantage.com.
Q1. Now that everyone is in a festive mood and ready to celebrate the birth of our Savior, let’s talk about taxes. With just a few days left in the year, what can pastors do right now to reduce their taxes for 2016?
Ministers can save a considerable amount by reviewing their housing allowance designations to make sure it’s adequate. The rule of thumb is to make it higher than what you think you’re going to spend. If you spend more than the designation on housing, you’ll lose out on big deductions.
Other ways to save and reduce tax liability before the end of the year would include contributions to an HSA or a retirement plan. Probably the easiest way to save is through a charitable contribution. As long as the check or credit card date is in 2016, you get the deduction in 2016. People are allowed to give cash contributions up to 50% of their adjusted gross income. Any excess contributions can carry over for 5 additional years.
Q2. Ministers’ taxes are not like anybody else’s taxes. What makes ministers’ taxes so unique?
There are four unique tax rules for ministers’ taxes:
(1) Ministers are completely exempt from all payroll tax. The minister (not the church) is responsible for taxes. Ministers can enter into a voluntary withholding arrangement with the church, but this is matter of convenience, but not a requirement.
(2) Ministers are entitled to a housing allowance exclusion. The amount designated for your Housing Allowance can have a dramatic impact on your tax savings. As I said before, the minister wants to set the housing allowance higher than what they plan to use in case of unforeseen housing expenses or repairs. If a portion of the housing allowance is not used for housing, then that amount will be taxed as regular income.
(3) Dual employment status – Ninety percent of ministers are considered common law employees for state and Federal income tax, but are deemed as self-employed for social security tax. Minister receive a W2 which reports their income, but they have to pay self-employment tax on the income.
(4) Opting out of social security on ministry income. Ministers for religious reasons are allowed to opt out of social security. This is a decision that must be made early on in their ministry.
There are many ways pastors can receive what we call “Tax-Free Money.” For an overview of these strategies, take a look at the “Tax-Free Money for Ministers” video on the website.
Q3. What could pastors do to save taxes in 2017 that they might not be doing now?
Ministers should implement an Accountable Reimbursement Plan for ministry income. There are huge advantages. If you utilize it correctly, you get all of the ministry expenses off the tax return and it reduces your chance of audit. We offer a free 20 minute webinar on high points of an Accountable Reimbursement Plan: Click Here for More Info.
The key is in the implementation of the accountable plan. Other than automobile, the single biggest item is human expenses, including expenses of entertaining members or prospective members in the minister’s home. There is a significant key to church growth in personal entertainment, which can be reimbursed. If minister deducts these expenses on a tax return, the minister only gets a 50% deduction, but if they are reimbursed by the church then it’s a 100% savings. This strategy also reduces social security expense.
Q4. How can a minister’s salary structure give an advantage at tax time?
How the minister’s pay package salary is structured plays a big part in the overall tax savings. A Common mistake in the church is to equate “package” and “pay” as the same. They are not! The minister’s “take home” pay that is available to provide for the minister’s family is not the same as the total pay package. The tax treatment of expenses, pay and benefits is different in the church from the business world. Clergy compensation itself is quite different from employee compensation in the business world. These are “apples” to “oranges” comparatives.
A properly structured pay package will frequently be more impactful to savings taxes than how the tax return is completed.
Q5. I just received a notice from Clergy Advantage about the mileage deduction being reduced from $0.54 to $0.535 in 2017. How can church staff keep up on changes like this?
We offer articles, videos and webinars on our website: clergyadvantage.com. Ministers and church staff can also sign up for Tax Tips which are delivered by email at clergyadvantage.com
Q5.5. With a new Congress and President in 2017, what are your predictions for any changes that might affect pastors and their taxes?
Going into my 40th tax season, I’ve learned to differentiate between talk and what is actually legislated. Best to wait and see what will actually be legislated.
By Allen White
“Nobody ever leaves ‘good enough’ for ‘potentially better'” according to Robert Herjavec of Shark Tank fame in the December 2016 issue of Fortune magazine. He makes a very good point. While Herjavec was starting his software security business, he found difficulty selling something slightly better than what people were currently using. I’m a buyer like that.
A nice young man named Storm calls me once in a while from Citrix. I’ve been their customer for many years, since I’ve found GotoMeeting to be a very stable platform for my coaching groups. Storm would like me to consider Citrix’s version of Dropbox. He’s a very nice young man. He gave a solid presentation. He checks up on me now and then. The only problem is Storm wants me to sign up for Citrix’s version of Dropbox, and I’m a longtime Dropbox user. Good enough wins over potentially better.
Now, if the Citrix’s version came bundled with GotoMeeting and gave me a discount, then maybe. But, I have Dropbox links in my emails, my articles, everywhere. It’s a lot to unlink just to link back up with a similar product. If Dropbox had a catastrophic failure, then maybe I would switch to a different platform. But, until I have a compelling reason, I have no motivation to change.
Let’s pretend you are Storm from Citrix, and I am your church member. You want me to join a small group. I “don’t have time for a group” a.k.a. “it’s not a priority in my life.” Why? I have friends already. I have a regular quiet time. I’m involved with other things at church. Now, without overselling small groups or making them mandatory (both tactics will fail), why should I join a small group? How are groups better than what I’m currently doing?
If you can answer this question, then people might abandon what they’re doing for something they perceive as better.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.
By Allen White
Photo by Romolo Tavani
While every small group pastor is unique, most fall into one of four types of small group pastors. Having talked to thousands of pastors over the years, I have found some change their strategies very willingly, while others are very reluctant. Some are ready to take the hill. Others prefer to analyze the approach before they take the hill. Whether your style is ready, fire, aim or ready, aim, fire, the way you are wired reveals a lot about how you lead your groups. While no one fits perfectly into any one category, in general, pastors are closer to one approach over the other three.
Are You the Innovator?
Innovators are quickly attracted to new ideas. In fact, they become easily bored with the strategies they’ve implemented. Often, they will switch to a new strategy before they’ve allowed the current strategy to bear any fruit. They thrive on change.
Innovators are a lot of fun to be around, but since they have an idea a minute, they can quickly overwhelm other people. They tend to change approaches so often that their followers can become fatigued. Eventually, they find that their latest and greatest new ideas are met with an eye roll instead of a drum roll.
If you’re an innovator, you tend to be impulsive. Because you come up with idea after idea, often you can be accused of being flaky. Innovators tend to be great starters, but poor finishers. They need people around them who will keep them focused, allow them to play in the lab, but keep things consistent for those they lead.
If you live on the bleeding edge, you just might be an Innovator.
Are You The Shepherd?
Now, before you get all messianic on this one, let me give you a few insights. The Shepherd’s chief concern is how their decisions will affect people. Often their concern is to the point of not making a move forward at all. They would rather take a pass on a great idea than rock the boat in any way.
Shepherds are highly relational. Often a shepherd becomes a small group pastor because he or she was a really great small group leader. They are great at managing the relationships they can handle, but there is a threshold for the number of group leaders they can effectively lead.
These folks are very reluctant to change, especially if they perceive a change would adversely affect people in any way. They would prefer to ignore new strategies than embrace them.
Often a shepherd is the victim of the Peter Principle: everyone is promoted to their own level of incompetence. This means the shepherd was an awesome small group leader. They might have even been an amazing small group coach, but when they are put in charge of the whole thing, they keep the number of small groups small and manageable. After all, how could they personally care for 50 or 100 or 1,000 small group leaders?
Shepherds perform best in smaller churches with a couple dozen groups. In larger ministries, they would quickly become overwhelmed and would need to learn leadership in a completely different way. Their focus would need to change from connecting with every group leader personally to being personal with a small group leadership team, who along with their coaches, would care for the group leaders. This is not impossible, but it’s unlikely.
Generals are ready to charge the hill. They’re not quite on the bleeding edge of Innovators, but they are right behind them. Generals don’t need a fully proven and complete strategy to move forward. They just need the marching orders and the green light. They are ready to go.
Generals easily abandon ineffective strategies. If something over a given period of time doesn’t produce the desired results, then that method will quickly be replaced with effective new ideas. Generals are not impulsive like Innovators, but they are impatient with things that don’t move at a steady pace. Sometimes things that are working on a small scale are abandoned before they’ve been given the opportunity to flourish. But, at other times, the General calls the right shot and refuses to waste his or her time and energy on something that is not bearing fruit.
Generals are early adopters of new ideas. When they see a strategy that has potential, they are ready to take action and make it happen. Sometimes in their haste to take the bull by the horns, they run over people and even lose a few in the quest to accomplish the goal. Shepherds are horrified by the temperament of Generals.
Generals need the insights of Innovators. They’re not going to come up with all of the new ideas, but they will execute like nobody’s business. Generals would be wise to hire an Analyst to help with the details. Generals see the big picture, but often jump over several steps to get there. If an Analyst (below) is subject to perfectionism, the General is subject to what I call “Good-enough-ism.” A wise General would also hire a Shepherd to stay in awareness of the emotional condition of the sheep especially during major transitions.
Analysts are, well, analytical. They carefully and deliberatively study a strategy before they make a move. While their due diligence can be admired, they often can become stuck in the paralysis of analysis. This is partly due to need to see the whole picture before they get started, which unfortunately is rarely afforded to pastors trying a new approach. They also tend to be perfectionist, so they do not want to make mistakes. This often causes them to miss opportunities.
Analysts are going to let someone else (or a lot of somebodies) try an idea and then evaluate their results before they serious consider making a change. They are inspired by Innovators and Generals, but are also frustrated that their emotional make up doesn’t allow them to venture out to the cutting edge of things.
The good news about analysts is they save their ministries and their people from the trial and error that others might recklessly inflict on their people. The other side is their reluctance and often skepticism holds them back from what they could achieve. An Analyst who is coached by an experienced small groups pastor can make great progress with a much lower level of risk.
The Analyst would be a great team member for a General or an Innovator. They could certainly offer balance and consistent follow through to their leader. Analysts work well as the leader in a more traditional environment. A General or an Innovator would blow up a traditional environment. An analyst would be careful to study changes and move only when it’s advantageous within the organization.
Which Type Are You?
No one fits neatly into any one of these categories. In fact, it would be good to consider which type would be your secondary approach. For instance, a General-Innovator will lead much differently than a General-Analyst.
Lead with your strengths. Don’t try to lead like someone else. God wired you the way He intended to. Lead with your strengths, then staff to your weaknesses. If you’re an Innovator, you will always leave out details. Hire an Analyst. If you’re a Shepherd, then either lead a small flock well or work for someone who needs your relational skills to keep things in balance.