WHAT IF I CAN’T FORGIVE?

One of the unfortunate realities of the Christian faith is that there is no shortage of people in the faith who are always willing and ready to point out the obvious and somehow try to make us feel guilty enough to do what we are supposed to do out of guilt.  This seems to be especially true in terms of forgiveness–there are lots and lots of people writing, preaching and telling about the need to forgive.

But I have a basic question that I want to look at in this and the next couple of posts.  I know that I should forgive people–that is rather obvious.  But what if I can’t bring myself to forgive?  I have been asked that question in many places by many people and have struggled with it myself at various times when I have felt wronged.  There are all sorts of reasons attached to the inability to forgive but they really aren’t the issue for me at this point. I want to look at the realities of an inability or unwillingness to forgive.

And I think the first reality that comes the inability or unwillingness to forgive is the burden that it produces.  In general, something that we find ourselves unable to forgive is pretty traumatic and major.  Spill my coffee and I will probably forgive you.  Kidnap and harm my child and I will likely struggle with forgiving–more than likely, I will wish for revenge, for you to suffer as much as I am.

Being unable to forgive is tied to the severity of the offence–the more serious the issue, the more we struggle with forgiveness.  Or maybe I had better say, the more serious the offence, the more I struggle with forgiveness.  Ultimately, I carry the burden of that inability to forgive.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the person who committed the offence may not even care if they are forgiven or not–my lack of forgiveness isn’t a burden to them.

I suffer when I won’t forgive.  I keep playing the events and words and situation over and over in my mind and often in my contacts with others.  I might want revenge–sometimes wishing for it privately and other times openly seeking it through legitimate and illegitimate means.  In some cases, my whole life can begin to revolve around the offence and its consequences and my desire for the offender not to be forgiven.

I tie myself into knots over it; I damage my ability to carry on a “normal” life; I alienate friends and family; I can cause damage to my emotional, physical and spiritual health; I can even limit my ability to relate to God.  I can end up bitter, angry, anti-social, becoming that person that everyone pities but hates to come in contact with.  Certainly, not everyone who can’t forgive does all of this–but the truth is that an inability to forgive does open us up to serious and long term consequences that can affect much of our life.

Now, this is the point in the sermon where I am supposed to say, “So, it’s better to forgive than not so go forgive the offender.”  But since I rarely listen to such simplistic sermons, I can’t and won’t say that.

I will say that we do need to understand the practical implications of being unable to forgive.  We probably need to spend some serious time looking at our reasons for not being able to forgive–rather than focus all our time and energy on the offender and the offence, we need to use some time and energy to look at ourselves and our reasoning and our feelings and understand better just what it is that we are doing and why we are doing it.  Sometimes,  we are going to find that our inability to forgive provides us with a convenient distraction from having to deal with the messy and painful feelings associated with the offence–as long as we can keep the focus on not forgiving, we don’t have to deal with our real pain.

If we can’t forgive, we should at least know the real reason why we can’t (or won’t) forgive.  Knowing this may or may not lead us to being able to forgive but we will at least have a much better idea of the burden we are shackling ourselves to by our inability to forgive.  Knowing the truth may not exactly set us free, but it will help us know better why we are in the state we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

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FORGIVE AND FORGET?

Sometimes when I preach or teach, I get those listening to play “Let’s pretend”.  The game involves me spinning a scenario and them imagining they are a part of the scenario.  I don’t do it often but it is sometimes useful to help people better identify with a situation.  So, today, I want to play “Let’s pretend.”

Let’s pretend that we own a small business–nothing big and nothing involving anything that would require ethical considerations.  We have a couple of employees, one of whom looks after all our financial stuff because when we add 1 and 1, the answer comes out to 3 only half the time–the rest of the time, we get it wrong, even using a calculator.  (This scenario is based on my reality when  it comes to numbers) Because of that, it takes a while for us to realize that we are losing money while having lots of customers and lots of inventory turnover.

After some looking and consulting with someone who can actually add and subtract and do all that mysterious number stuff, we discover that our book keeper has been helping himself to lots and lots of our money.  He has a sick child who needs lots of medical and practical support, a great deal of which isn’t covered by the government medical plan (I live in Canada).  We confront the employee, hoping to find a solution that avoids the legal system.

He can’t pay us back–the money has been spend on stuff for the child.  He tearfully confesses, promises never to do it again and begs us to forgive him.  So, after expressing our outrage and sense of betrayal and the anger and all the rest, we somehow find the strength and courage to forgive him.  Depending on your preference, you can imagine a bear hug with tears or a handshake.

We have forgiven–but what now?  What if he begs for his job back, telling us that if we fire him, he will lose everything and his sick child will lose all the support that is necessary.  With even more tears, he begs and pleads and even attempts placing a fairly decent guilt trip on us.  And then we remember that time honoured phrase, “Forgive and Forget”.

Does forgiving mean we have to treat him as if nothing happened?  Do we have to let him continue on in his old job as if nothing happened?  Would the answer be different if instead of having a sick child, he was spending the money on a gambling or substance abuse habit?  Does forgiving mean we have to move on as if the thing never happened?

After all, we are told that when God forgives us, it is permanent and complete and it is never raised again–it is gone completely.  And I love that theology.  But does that theology mean that I have to let the embezzler look after my money or the convicted habitual child abuser go back to teaching the Sunday School class where he found his victims?  Does it mean I have to trust the individual whose desire for gossip keeps him/her continually asking for forgiveness for giving away confidential information?

Well, I struggle with this.  Some things are easy to answer–I would never let a habitual child abuser anywhere near a children’s Sunday School class, no matter how long ago it was or how clear their repentance.  But going back to our pretend game, I might consider letting the man continue to work for me but I would either given him a different job or ensure that I learned to count and deal with money better.

Forgiveness from God comes with no strings attached.  But until we become perfect, we human beings probably need to be “…as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10.16)  We probably need to temper our forgiveness with reality.  It may seem like we are watering down our forgiveness or undercutting the Gospel–but maybe we are just being wise and helping people avoid the temptations that inevitably arise when we human beings deal with the messy issues of our lives and the lives of those around us.

I could be all wrong on this.  This is one of the issues with forgiveness that I am still struggling with.  I want God to forgive me completely and forget everything I have done–but I can’t quite see that working well all the time with we fallible humans.

May the peace of God be with you.

DID I FORGIVE?

On a regular basis during the summertime, I have a conversation with a certain person.  We chat about the weather, his work, my work, his family, his stress level and so on–or we chat as best we can given that I tend to see him at his work and have to chat between customers.  Our time is therefore limited but it is always cordial, friendly, unforced and feels genuine.  It is the kind of conversation that I have with a lot of people whom I know, one of those pleasant times that are appreciated as much as a cool drink on a hot day.

But when I reflect on these particular conversations, I am always a bit surprised and wonder what is going on.  This person and I have a very unpleasant history which at one point involved his leading a campaign that ended with my resignation from the church and spending about half an hour at a church business meeting pointing out all the real and imagined deficiencies and weaknesses and even sins in my ministry after I had resigned.  I am pretty sure that the trauma of that whole thing has affected our youngest and his understanding of the church in a negative way.  At the time, I felt betrayed, attacked and even persecuted. I am pretty sure he felt the same thing.  When the dust settled, I was given a second call to serve the congregation and he and a few others departed.

I am pretty sure that I was the wronged party in the process and therefore was the one with the obligation to offer forgiveness.  My guess is that he was pretty sure that he was the one wronged and therefore should be offering me forgiveness.  On my better days, I am pretty sure that we both did each other wrong and both have an obligation to forgive and be forgiven.  Both of us are somewhat strong-willed (which, of course, was part of the underlying problem) and so neither of us has ever yet asked for or spoken of forgiveness.

But every summer, we talk and my sense is that it is a genuine talk on both our parts.  He could avoid talking by focusing on work and I could avoid talk by altering my path just a bit.  But I don’t alter my path and he takes the time to talk.  I realized a while ago that I like him and enjoy talking with him.  I doubt that I would be jumping up and down with happiness if he were to join one of the congregations I pastor but I could probably deal with it.

Did I forgive him or he forgive me?  I have never consciously forgiven him, neither in my mind nor with words.  I am not very good at reading minds so I don’t know if he has mentally forgiven me but I know he has never spoken the words of forgiveness.

But we talk and enjoy the talk.  And so I have begun to think that maybe sometimes, forgiveness creeps into situations without either the forgiver or forgiven actually being aware of what is going on.  Maybe some part of our being gets the message of forgiveness and the ability to forgive without it going through the logic circuits.  Maybe the Holy Spirit actually does more in and through us than we realize at times.

As a counsellor, I generally teach and practise that we need to verbalize things to make them real–and yet it seems that to verbalize everything with my friend would be counterproductive.  What we have works.  There is a real concern and interest, a sense of respect and a lack of background tension.  Somehow, we both seem to have let things go and maybe the talking we do is a tacit admission to each other that we have forgiven and been forgiven.

This is another of those great mysteries of the faith that I struggle with.  I haven’t consciously forgiven or been forgiven but at the same time,  I feel forgiven and feel I have forgiven.  And the relationship shows evidence of that.  We don’t see each other all that much but we do see each other and we don’t avoid each other and there is genuine interest and concern when we talk.

Did I forgive or get forgiven?  Given the reality of the situation, I would have to say yes–but don’t ask me when or how because I have no idea.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO BENEFITS?

A few weeks ago, I touched on a topic in one of my sermons that not only opened some avenues of thought for the congregation but also made me return to a topic that I regularly have to struggle with–forgiveness.

For many years, I have thought about and studied and prayed about and occasionally practised forgiveness.  As a follower of Christ, I have a strong belief in forgiveness–but at the same time, I have questions and concerns and issues with forgiveness.  In my pastoral work, I often hear the same questions about forgiveness.  You would think that with all the time and effort, I would have the matter settled–but the reality is that I keep coming back to the questions because of my own experience and the experience of people I work with.

One struggle that I have and have spent time helping others deal with goes like this.  Someone does something truly awful to another person–not a small thing like taking their coffee cup but a major think like abusing them in some way.  The person who was abused is or becomes a believer and is counselled to forgive the offender.  Depending on the nature of the faith group the individual belongs to, the counsel can even be that they must forgive the offender.

But, the hesitant reply comes, if the abuser is forgiven, doesn’t he/she get away with it?  As long as the victim withholds forgiveness, the abuser can’t get away with what they have done.  Logically, it makes sense.  Practically, the logic falls apart.

I talked with one victim of terrible abuse about that logic.  Her abuse was never reported, so the abuser was never charged and then died several years after the abuse.  When others told her to forgive the abuser, she struggled because forgiving him felt to her like he was getting away with abusing her.  But truthfully, forgiven or not, he had got away with the abuse, in the sense that he never “paid” for the abuse–even if it had been reported when we were talking, he was dead and nothing could be done.

But the victim could not forgive.  The interesting thing is that as far as I know, she is the only person still suffering–and a significant part of the suffering is that she can’t let go of the need for the abuser to suffer some kind of punishment.  Lacking legal recourse, her only option seemed to be withholding her forgiveness.

But, really, what good did that do?  He was dead, no one else actually cared because it was in the past and she had worked through a lot of the pain and trauma over the years.  The only person  suffering because of her inability to forgive was herself.

Maybe forgiveness at times has nothing to do with the other person–maybe it is something we have to do for ourselves so that we can get a better handle on the pain and suffering and struggle that we carry as a result of the things have been done to us that we can’t or won’t forgive.  Holding on to the trauma and pain and hurt to prevent the abuser from getting away with what he did really only penalizes one person and it isn’t the abuser.

Forgiveness is something we give so that we can be free, at least at times.  Forgiving isn’t always an altruistic and other directed action.  A lot of the time, perhaps most of the time, the real secret of giving forgiveness is so that we can be free.  Certainly, there are a few times when someone begs for our forgiveness–but even in those cases, if we refuse the forgiveness, we suffer as much as the one asking for forgiveness.

I worked that particular issue through years ago, at least theologically and psychologically.  But when confronted with someone who hurts me, I still struggle with being willing to let myself forgive the person–and so in the end, I make myself at least as miserable as the person I won’t forgive.  And if I am honest about it, I am often more miserable than the person I won’t forgive because the lack of forgiveness doesn’t bother the other person all the much.

Maybe the person I forgive will get away with what he/she did.  Maybe my lack of forgiveness doesn’t bother them at all.  But it sure bothers me–I am not really free until I can forgive.  Maybe being selfish and seeing the benefits of forgiveness for me is a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT MY CHURCH?

Although I have done many things in ministry–prison chaplain, missionary, theology professor, I have basically spend most of my life as a pastor, working with small rural congregations.  And although every congregation is different with its own dynamics and quirks and strengths and weaknesses, I think I have discovered a few things that are shared at least by all the rural congregations that I know.

The first is a generalized sense of doom.  Small congregations are always struggling.  They don’t have much money, the membership and attendance are dwindling, the average age is increasing, internal quarrels are getting more frequent and nastier, it gets harder and harder to replace key leaders like musicians and pastors, the building they meet in is getting older and older and needs more and more work.  Most such congregations feel that they are living on borrowed time, a condition that is expressed by a grim comment I hear now and then: “We are just one or two funerals away from closing.”  Normally, that is followed by the names of the one or two people whose contributions keep the congregation afloat.

That is the first and most obvious thing I see in the small churches I work with and know of.  At one point in my ministry career, I tended to get worked up and worried about the realities that the church was worried about–maybe not for the same reasons.  If I was the pastor, the imminent closure of the church meant that I would be unemployed.

I don’t worry about that sort of thing as much anymore.  Partly, it’s because the closer I get to retirement age, the less unemployment bothers me.  But mostly it is because I had discovered something else that all these congregations have in common.  If you can find the minutes of old business meetings of some of these congregations, you will discover that the church members have been saying the same things almost from day the church began–and for many congregations in my geographical area, that beginning can be anywhere up to 200 years ago.

Congregations are persistent–and it seems like small congregations have this persistence in abundance.  Something about their church touches their lives in a very important, deep down way that keeps them going on no matter what the realities they face.

I was doing some supply preaching last year for two small congregations that were giving serious thought to closing down permanently.  Money was tight, buildings were in need of work, they had no musician and couldn’t find a pastor–but didn’t feel that they could afford to pay a pastor anyway.  This was not the first time they had been at this point.

And every time they reach this point, they find a way to keep going.  Their church is important.  The small gathering of believers provides something in their life that can’t be found elsewhere.  They could close and go to other churches and would probably find something of whatever it is that keeps them together.  But being together, even if it is just for a worship service, meets a need in their lives and they keep going.  Will they close?  Who knows?  For now, they are still meeting for worship and are exploring ways of becoming a more active congregation–one of the members said recently that part of the problem is that they have no real mission.  We are setting out to find our mission these days.

Small, struggling congregations do close–there are a lot of empty church buildings in our area and other spots where congregations used to meet.  But there are even more that keep going, defying the odds year after year, finding unique and interesting way to keep going.  Their persistence comes from deep within–they have made a commitment to God and a commitment to each other, commitments that they express through the church.  A local congregation will not die until those commitments disappear.

But while those commitments exists, the church will continue.  Wise leadership will focus on these commitments, fanning the flames that keep the church going.  If these commitments are the focus, the other stuff becomes annoying but manageable.  We learn that we can sing without a musician, we can make some sort of repair on the building, we can find someone to preach and teach, we can work out the interpersonal tensions–all because of the powerful commitments to serve God and each other through the church.

May the peace of God be with you

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?

There is a scene that pops up in movies and TV shows fairly regularly.  An unexpected accident or illness lands one of the characters in a hospital on life support and likely in a coma.  Family and friends gather around and look to the doctor, who describes the injuries or illness, making it sound extremely serious.  Someone asks the inevitable question, “What are the chances?”, seeking to discover whether the patient will live or die.

Almost invariable, the answer from the doctor is that the chances are not good–the patient will likely die and if they don’t die, they will be disabled for life.  Some shows then follow the miraculous recovery process while others follow the family and friends as they deal with the resulting death or disability.  Which track the show follows probably depends a lot on the contract negotiations between the studio and the actor playing the patient.

That scene popped into my mind when I was thinking about the church.  All of us are standing around, looking at the church, which appears to be on life support and in dire shape.  What are the chances?

Well, based on historical reality, the church will survive.  It will not, however, likely survive in exactly the same shape and form it has today.  Nor will every congregation that exists today survive.  Many congregations, both small and large will fold, leaving crumbling buildings and fading memories.  A few denominations may even disappear, either because they amalgamate with another or because they just dwindle to nothing.

But the church will survive.  The history is the Christian church is as much a history of change, mutation and variation as it is a history of struggle, stagnation and decay.  The church established on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) was very different from the church of today.  The church that struggled to exist under official and unofficial Roman persecution was diverging from the Acts 2 church.  The church that will develop in Islamic parts of the world will be very different from the worshipping body of 12 that I pastor.  The church that is developing around Internet based activities is very different from anything we have seen so far in the history of the faith.

But whatever it looks like, it will still be the church.  The church exists as a human organization and a divine organism at one and the same time.  The human organization can and does experience all the realities of any human organization–and as a human organization, will face failure and parts of it will disappear.  The seven churches mentioned Revelation 2-3, for example, no longer exist.

And if the church were just a human organization, it would have had a very short history.  But since the church is also a divine organism, it can be assured of a long and significant history stretching from the day of Pentecost to the day when Christ returns.  The church is built on the power of God shown in the resurrection and filled with the power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.  The church is formed by those who have accepted God’s grace in Jesus Christ and have discovered the wonder of God.

This powerful, Spirit-filled and led organism cannot be defeated.  God has a plan for the church and through his Spirit, he is ensuring that the church follows the plan.  There have been and will be many false starts, deviations and detours, dead ends and defeats–but God is guiding and directing the church, shaping and reshaping and directing and pushing and prodding and moving the church in the way he planned for it to follow.

The church has a future, a future that depends on the power of God.  The long term future of the church probably won’t involve a lot of what we consider important and essential.  It may not have buildings; the music will definitely be different; pastors will look and act differently; congregations may not meet together in the same place–but there will be a church, a gathering of the Spirit-filled who have responded to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There will be a church because God instituted the church, protects the church, empowers the church, has a role and a mission for the church and will eventually bring the whole church to him.   Until that day, there will be a church.  Some congregations may not have much of a chance, but the church’s chances are excellent–it will survive and thrive.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

Recently, a friend who has been involved in pastoral ministry even longer than I have asked me what I thought the future of the church would be.  It may be that since he had spent his life working in and for the church and was now sort of retired, he was wondering if his life’s work had any value.  Or it just might be that he was making conversation.

Anyway, the more I have thought about his question, the more complex and confusing it  seems to become.  The state of the church today is not an easy one to describe and therefore, the future of the church is even harder to describe.

On many levels, the church, especially the church in North America, looks like it is in trouble.  Attendance is dropping and those who do attend are getting greyer and greyer.  I led worship in two separate congregations yesterday, one with 12 people and the other with 17 people.  Both these congregations used to have much bigger congregations, full time pastors, Sunday Schools and even youth groups.  Now, these small groups carry on, faithful but asking serious questions about how much longer they will last.

The church is also in trouble in terms of its image.  I know more people who don’t attend worship than who do attend worship these days.  Spirituality has become a popular trend in western culture but the church isn’t often seen as a valid avenue to develop spirituality.  Even many whose spiritual journey follows the Christian path feel that they don’t really need to church–and have no problem expressing that lack of need and even encouraging others to avoid the church.

Even the church’s traditional public ministries of weddings and funerals are being expressed in different ways–and more and more, the church and its services are being ignored as people develop new ways to celebrate these transitions.

It is relatively easy to find all kinds of information about the decline of the church, the irrelevancy of the church, the dangers of the church, the evils of the church even.  Thanks to the Internet, people wanting to show the dangers and difficulties of the church don’t need a pulpit–they just need a keyboard and internet access.

And the real problem facing the church today is that no matter how biased the article, no matter how poorly written, no matter how slanted the perspective, no matter how awful the claims made against the church, everyone who writes against the church is tapping a deep vein of truth–the church today, as always, is not perfect.

And while some organizations may get to hide their imperfections behind PR firewalls and confidentiality agreements, the church’s imperfections–both real and imagined–get shouted from the rooftops for all to see and hear and pass around.  Even the most dedicated church member probably has at least one bad story about the church and since we live in the Internet age, that story can be and probably will be made public.

When we look at the very negative images of the church that are so common today and couple that with the statistical reality that in Canada, less than 20% of the population actually attend Christian worship regularly, things don’t look too good for the church.   If I were a new pastor just beginning my career in ministry, seeing all the negative concerning the church might encourage me to get qualified in something else just to be on the safe side.

But after looking at all the negative stuff, I still have to deal with the reality of my pastoral charges–the 12 and the 17.  I have heard some of their stories and will hear more of their stories in the future.  Some of those stories will be about negative stuff associated with the church in general and our churches in specific.  But next Sunday, we will still gather for worship.  We will sing some hymns and choruses, maybe even with an accompanist, and pray some prayers.  I will preach a sermon that most will listen to most of the time.  We will lament the lack of numbers even as we are shaking hands, hugging and asking how the week has been, if the cold in getting better and offering condolences for latest tragedy we have heard about.

We will be the church–for how long, we don’t know.  But for now, we are the church and we will do church stuff, even if it seems somewhat futile in the light of the stats and reports coming from everywhere and everyone.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M STUCK

I like writing, which is a good thing since I do a lot of writing in my job as a pastor.  A typical week these days sees me writing two sermons, two Bible studies and assorted other things.  I can easily write between 4000-10,000 words a week.  And then, I turn to my hobbies, which currently consist of learning how to keep a drone out of the trees (only on days without a lot of wind) and writing entries for this blog.

With all that writing, I am always looking for ideas.  Sermon ideas are crucial and I plan them in three to four month cycles.  Church newsletters, special projects and so on come at irregular intervals and generally have a theme already suggested.  Blog ideas come easily  sometimes–I have occasionally had weeks of ideas sitting in a file on the hard drive, waiting for me to develop and post.

But every now and then, I get stuck.  This is one of those stuck times.  I have pretty much used up the ideas in the folder–all that are left are those ideas that really don’t make any sense anymore, if they ever did.  I look at them and wonder who hacked my computer and put those strange ideas in the folder.

So, what else is there to do but write about being stuck?  I am pretty sure that I know why I am stuck this morning.  To start with, it’s Monday morning.  I am aware that this is posted on a Friday but I do my blog writing on Monday.  Mondays come after Sunday, which for me consisted of two worship services and the completion of a three part series on Islam for a church/community group.

I am tired today and when I get tired, my mind doesn’t really want to be overly creative.  I could take to morning off and mow the lawn, except sitting staring at a computer screen with nothing to write is still more interesting than mowing the lawn.  I could have written about the questions associated with moving lawns but I have already done that.

So, I am stuck.  But I am not worried about being stuck.  I know why I am stuck, I know that I will get unstuck eventually and find something more interesting to write about.  Being stuck now and then is a reality and over the years, I have learned to be graceful with myself, at least in that area.

There are times and places in my life that I need to learn to be more graceful with myself–and maybe the grace I show myself when  I am stuck can help me with that.  All of us need to be a bit better being graceful, both to ourselves and to others.  God’s supply of grace is limitless and eternal–but when it reaches is, we tend to be somewhat stingy with it, treating grace as if it was some exotic commodity that is expensive, hard to get and perpetually on back order.

But grace isn’t all that.  True, it is expensive–but that expense was covered by God.  It isn’t hard to get–God freely makes it available to all who ask.  And it is never on back order–it is always fresh and in stock.

So, I am going to be graceful to myself and finish this post today.  It is short and may not have much point.  But it does open the door to look at the unlimited grace of God and I doubt if I can do anything better than that even on my most unstuck day.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’LL DO IT

One of the difficulties I face occasionally as a pastor grows out of the need to find people to do the things that need to be done in the church.  Actually, the problem comes from the willingness of some people to volunteer for anything.  More than once as a pastor, I have faced the task of asking for volunteers, knowing that as soon as the notice went out, so and so would immediately volunteer.  Unfortunately, so and so would be absolutely the last person for the position.

I know–God gives everyone gifts and sometimes the gifts are hidden and people can surprise us by fitting perfectly in the job and we have to give people a chance and all that–but the truth is that eventually, we can just know that the combination of so and so and that particular job will be a catastrophe.  So and so’s track record means they will eagerly volunteer and then proceed to do nothing, do the wrong thing, offend people, misunderstand the limits of the position and/or make a serious mess of the whole thing.

Just as there are people like me who are reluctant to volunteer, so there are also people who volunteer for anything.  Some are driven by a need to be liked and accepted; some are driven by a desire for power and authority; some are driven by an unrealistic view of their abilities–but whatever the reason, when the call for volunteers goes out, they are right there, ready, willing but not always able.

As a pastor, I have learned–and used–the various political manoeuvres to avoid giving the perpetual volunteer an opening.  I have spent time privately considering the job and the abilities of people and then offered the job to someone without the public call for volunteers; I have offered the perpetual volunteer a different job first to keep them from volunteering for the other job and occasionally, I have simply had to tell people they can’t have the job.

I have a problem with the perpetual volunteers.  For years, I thought that my problem was trying to keep the perpetual volunteer out of jobs.  A variation of the problem was containing my irritation when the perpetual volunteer ends up with a job they really aren’t going to do much for.  Occasionally, the problem is the sense of elated “I could have told you so” when the perpetual volunteer inevitably messes things up.

But I think now that I have been focused on the wrong problem.  The problem isn’t keeping the perpetual volunteer out of a job but finding the job they are called to–and maybe some pastoral help to enable them to understand their need to volunteer no matter what.

I can’t do much about the perpetual volunteers in places and organizations where I have no input.  But in churches where I am involved, I have input.  If I am the pastor, my input is significant–and it just might be that part of my job is helping the perpetual volunteer in the church identify their real gifts and calling and then help them find–or even develop–the job that God has already set aside for them.

I am not talking about developing fake jobs like assistant garbage can inspector or Sunday School teachers’ closet prayer warrior.  I am talking about taking the time to pray and search and work with the individual to discover where God is really calling them.  This is not an approach I have used in the past but I think it should probably become my approach.  I spend a lot of time as a pastor encouraging the perpetual non-volunteer to open themselves to God and his gifts–now, maybe I need to learn how to give equal time and effort to the perpetual volunteer to achieve the same results.

In the overall scheme of things, that will probably work  much better for me and the perpetual volunteer.  As a pastor, I have never had more than one or two perpetual volunteers in the church at any one time and so it is likely that the time I spend trying to keep them out of a job will be sufficient to help them find their real job. I will let you know how it works out.

May the peace of God be with you.

WE NEED SOMEONE TO…

I was at a meeting recently, one of those meetings that are occupational hazards for those of us in ministry.  It was scheduled for the whole day, including lunch.  Now, in my ministry career, I have spent a lot of time at such meetings as a speaker, a chairperson or just as someone attending such a meeting.  Meetings of any kind are generally not my favourite aspect of ministry–but that may become the topic of a later post.

At many of the meetings like this that I attend, there is always a point in the meeting where those in charge reveal that some committee or another needs someone to do some task.  Generally, the tasks have some purpose that is legitimate and maybe even important.  It will also be a volunteer position, although occasionally, there might be compensation for expenses, although since most of my meetings are church related, that isn’t a given.

I have found over the years of attending such meetings that there are generally two types of people when it comes to such requests.  There are the volunteers, which we will look at tomorrow, and there are the non-volunteers, which is what I want to look at today.  There is some shifting between the categories but in general, most people fit in one or the other category.

I personally tend to be in the non-volunteer category.  I think part of that might result from the mantra I learned in my brief military experience, where we were continually being told “Don’t Volunteer”.  More of the unwillingness not to volunteer comes from the fact that I need time to think things through and volunteering when I first hear something just doesn’t fit with my need to think and pray things through.  Occasionally, I don’t volunteer because I know immediately that I don’t have the time and/or ability to do the job.  But more often than not, I don’t volunteer because I need time to think and pray.

Others whom I have talked to as a pastor have a different reason for not volunteering–they are pretty much convinced that they have nothing to offer that would do anyone any good.  In their  minds, calls for volunteers are never for them because they would never, ever be able to do anything.

I don’t feel I have nothing to offer when someone asks for volunteers–I am just reluctant to speak up without taking the time I need to make a decision, so like so many others, when the call for this or that position goes out, I don’t respond–or, better, I don’t respond by immediately jumping into the position.  I might respond later, once I have had the time to think that I need but chances of my responding right there and then are pretty slim.  It has happened, but only at those times when I knew before hand that the call was coming and had been thinking it through.

While I am comfortable with the “don’t volunteer immediately” approach that I have developed, there is a downside.  If I don’t volunteer and don’t really listen to the call and therefore don’t think about it, I may be missing something that God wants me to do.  Over the years as a pastor, I have seen this play out a lot among the people who don’t volunteer because they think they can’t do anything.

People like me need to be careful when it comes to our not volunteering.  Going through life with a blanket “no” to any and every call to do something is probably a mistake.  We all have at least one gift of the Holy Spirit that needs to be expressed for the full development of the church and the faith.  Sometimes, that gift will best be expressed in the context of a something that we are asked to volunteer for at a meeting of some kind.  When I automatically say no, I may well be saying no not so much to a committee’s request to me but rather to God’s request for me to volunteer for something.

I need to remember to take the time to think things through, rather than just say no and forget about it.  I don’t have to volunteer for everything that comes along but I do have to be open to God’s leading, which may even come during a long and not always riveting meeting.

May the peace of God be with you.