A DISAGREEMENT ABOUT MONEY

I have spend my entire working career in ministry, most of it in the context of small, struggling rural congregations. There are a great many realities clustered around that statement but one of the more significant realities is that I have basically spent my entire working career in a context where there is never enough money. There may be small, rural congregations that have tons of money (I have heard rumours about such things) but I have never been called to be the pastor of one of them.

This means that I have spent a lot of time discussing money. Sometimes, we call it discussing vision and ministry and options and all that but in the end, it becomes a discussion of money—or, to be more honest, it becomes a discussion about our lack of money, how we can get some more money and what we can’t do until we get some more money. I know there are lots of ministries that can be done with very little money but one of the basic truths of living in our culture is that ministry costs money and if we don’t have the money, it makes a difference in terms of what we can and can’t do. Dreaming is free—implementing dreams generally costs money.

The tensions between the need to do ministry and the lack of finances create some difficult, long, heated and painful discussions in small churches. Generally, one side wants to keep as much money as possible, holding it for the inevitable crisis in the future. The other side wants to do something, reasoning that having money in the bank isn’t much good if we are doing nothing. As pastor, I tend to be caught in the middle, wanting to encourage the church to do ministry but also recognizing that some of that money in the bank ensures that my paycheque won’t bounce at the end of the month.

So, with all that in mind, join me as one of my pastoral charges discusses a money issue. Worship was late starting because during the announcements, we discussed the fire in the community the night before. A house was severely damaged, likely beyond repair. The owner was in the hospital, fortunately in stable condition. He had been disabled for several months and therefore unable to work—and probably wouldn’t be able to work, especially given his injuries suffered in the fire. While no one actually said it, I think we were all assuming there was no insurance on the house or contents.

Since everyone knew the person and he was related to some on the church, the congregation wanted to help—and in this case, that meant a financial contribution. We had been planning on making a donation to another cause which ultimately didn’t need our help so some thought it would be a good idea to use that money to help. That started the discussion—what we were going to give wasn’t enough given the needs caused by the fire and injuries. Certainly, the wider community was likely going to hold some sort of benefit at some point. Definitely, there was a need—but there were several other serious needs in the community as well.

The discussion didn’t take too long. We wanted to help, the need was real, the amount we have been going to give wasn’t enough. So, the amount was almost doubled, everyone agreed and that was it. Most of the donation would be coming from our “reserves”—we don’t take in enough to make any kind of donation beyond paying the part-time pastor. We moved on and began our worship, later than normal but that isn’t unusual for us.

Not much of a discussion—but a significant one from my perspective. This group of people is interested in doing ministry and instead of seeing limits and walls and barriers, they see opportunities and want to respond. Money is a tool to use for ministry here and now. So, as a church, we look at the need and we respond—and then we move on to discover what else God has in store for us.

This is healthy and positive and significant. It says a lot about the underlying faith of this small group. This church is comfortable putting its money where its ministry is.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A SUNNY DAY

Question: What do you call a bright, warm, sunny day after two days of rain and cool weather? Obviously, the answer is Monday. Rainy, cool weekends are the ultimate indignity for most normal people, those who work Monday to Friday and count on the weekend to rest, recreate, work and play doing all the stuff that there is no time to do during the work week. Or at least, that is what I understand—I have never actually had a job where I had the weekend free.

For me, the weekend always involves work. I am aware that this is true for others as well—lots of us work on the weekends while others have the time free to do what they want. In fact, those of us who work on the weekend make it possible for many others to do their thing on the weekend. A popular weekend activity for some is weddings—and although the number of weddings is declining in our region, most still happen on Saturday. If I didn’t work on weekends, the wedding would be a lot more difficult to organize and carry out.

Of course, when I work a Saturday wedding, I don’t have the option of sleeping in on Sunday as most of the wedding goers do. I still have to get up and lead worship and preach—and since I have two services on Sunday, that doesn’t leave much time on the weekend for much more than eating and collapsing in front of the TV.

The bottom line for me is that a rainy weekend often doesn’t make a lot of difference in my plans. It does mean that the arthritis in my knees makes its presence known a bit more; the church building will likely be seriously over-heated; the congregants will be somewhat down because of the dark and dreary weather and a few may develop a phobia about getting wet and stay home from worship. But in terms of getting things done, well, most of my stuff on the weekend involves work and my work can be done rain or shine. Even outdoor weddings always have an indoor back up plan—that is one of my requirements for the couple getting married.

So, when it rains all weekend, I am not as bent out of shape as the members of my congregation since I am not really missing anything. But when a rainy weekend fades away and Monday dawns bright, sunny and warm, well, then I am all set. I generally have Mondays off—nobody ever gets married on a Monday; not much goes on in churches on Monday; my personal work schedule calls for study to begin on Tuesday. So, Mondays are mine, except for the occasional funeral or must have meeting that can’t fit anywhere else.

This Monday morning is bright and sunny and warming up—and it rained yesterday and was cool on Saturday. So, what am I going to do with this day everyone wanted yesterday and didn’t get? I don’t actually know. I am going to work on my blog—an activity that parks me in the living room with a perfect view of the sunny day illuminating the emerging leaves on the trees surrounding the neighbourhood.

I might get out and plant a few seeds—some to produce plants that the deer will probably eat and some that just might produce something that we can eat. I might go for a walk, depending on how much the drive to be out in the sun overcomes the anticipation of the pain it will cause. I might do some preliminary work on my next woodworking project. I might enjoy the sunny view as I finish that book I started last week and am enjoying. I will definitely take a nap—I may actually combine that and reading the book.

It is something of a frustration that my time off is generally at odds with the majority of people I know. But it isn’t frustrating enough that I am going to give up the time off I do have. And to be honest, while having a day off on a nice sunny day is a plus, I can and would enjoy the day off even if it is raining and dreary. For me, the bottom line is that I recognize I need to take time to relax and rest. It is nicer to do that on a sunny day but the sun isn’t a requirement.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.

BLEST BE THE TIE

I am probably the only pastor I know who still wears a suit and tie when I preach. That is simply a statement, rather than an introduction to a rant about people who don’t wear a suit and tie or the beginning of an introspective post on how I am about to change the habit of a lifetime so that I can become more relevant in my ministry. I wear my suit for my reasons—I am pretty comfortable taking off my jacket on warm days but unless the government passes an anti-suit and tie law, I will likely continue to do that until I retire—and if I preach anywhere after I retire, I will probably still wear my suit and tie.

This is all somewhat ironical, though, since I really don’t like ties and am much more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which is my general attire when I am not working. I have been known to spend a lot of time telling people why ties are an anachronistic, pointless hangover from a long past cultural tradition that has as much validity as making women wear hats to worship. I have made significant progress towards modernization, though—I don’t wear a suit and tie for regular stuff like visitation and Bible Study and meetings and so on. But for all that, every Sunday I am leading worship and preaching, I put on my suit, pick out a tie and head out to lead worship.

And with that, we can get to the real point of this post—the tie I pick out. As befits someone who really doesn’t like ties, I don’t have many of them—and since I no longer own a brown suit, several of the ones I have don’t get worn any more. I am not a fashion expert but I have it on good advice that some of my ties simply don’t “work” with my navy suits. Ultimately, I have about seven ties I actually wear—but since one is specifically for Christmas and one works best around Easter, I have about five that get worn regularly.

And interestingly enough, each one has a lot of emotional content. Two were given to me by a former parishioner who has since passed away. She saw the ties in a thrift shop and they reminded her of me. One has a depiction of Mt. Kilimanjaro and a rhino painted on it and it makes me homesick for Kenya every time I wear it. The other has a bright sun and paintings of children from around the world, which always puts me in a good mood.

Another was given to me by my mother many years ago—and I still feel a strong connection with her when I wear it, along with a touch of sadness because I miss her. Another tie has the cast of the Peanuts cartoons—my wife gave it to me for a Valentine’s present a long time ago. Each character is paired with the character they were closest to, making it a great present—and since I learned most of my theology from the Peanuts characters, it is totally appropriate for me.

I have another that I wear occasionally. The only distinction it has is that it is my oldest tie—I think I have had it since shortly after I began in ministry. I really don’t know where it came from but its persistence keeps it in my closet and around my neck on a regular basis. It also represents my rebellion against the accepted practise when I began ministry—way back then, pastoral ties were supposed to be dark and unadorned but this one is a bright multi-coloured mosaic that signifies nothing.

I don’t much like ties—they really don’t serve much purpose beyond satisfying some ancient forgotten social need. But for a variety of reasons, I still wear them and will likely wear them, at least for formal church functions until I die—and will likely be buried in a suit and tie. And if I am going to keep wearing an anachronistic and seriously pointless strip of cloth, I am going to wear something that has meaning to me. The fact that congregation members find most of the ties I wear interesting is good but mostly, I wear them because they mean something to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN ANNOYING PRACTISE

In my never ending struggle to keep my head above water in the demands of part-time ministry, I began a practise a few years ago that I find extremely helpful and valuable but which most people find so annoying that I rarely mention it. And when I do mention it, I mention it very carefully and with a confessional tone, as if I am somehow guilty of some great sin that I keep doing because I can’t help myself.

I began writing my sermons a week and a half to two weeks before I need them. So, the sermon I wrote this week will actually be preached a week from Sunday. If and when I mention that habit, there are several reactions, often following one after the other. The person who discovers my custom suddenly realizes that I have two sermons prepared—and since my schedule requires that I prepare sermons early in the week, they also realize I have two sermons done when they haven’t even started this week’s yet.

That almost invariably leads to joking requests to share the wealth and give them one of the sermons. Some of the people making the joke are genuinely joking—but more than a few are being serious and hoping I won’t notice that they are being serious.

The next response is that they begin talking about how they wish they could do that but just don’t have the time to do it. As we continue to talk, I sometimes discover that the unstated, hidden message in their comment is that they are so busy because their ministry is so much more demanding, successful, significant or whatever than mine. I obviously have more time on my hands so that I am able to engage in sneaky and perhaps degenerative habits like having a sermon ready well before I need it.

I don’t bother paying much attention to stuff like that these days. Those who know my secret continue on, convinced that I am underworked, obsessive, somewhat unbalance mentally or just plain weird. Those who don’t know my secret—well, what they don’t know doesn’t make any difference, although some of them probably think I am underworked, obsessive, somewhat unbalance mentally or just plain weird anyway.

I have had a tendency over the years to be somewhat out of step with most people—my sermon writing practise is only one manifestation of my individuality. I try to find ways and practises and customs and things that work for me in my situation—and even if others find them unusual or strange, I have become comfortable being different. Writing sermons a week ahead really means that when the inevitable week from hell comes, when I have 14 funerals, 29 weddings, 87 pastoral emergencies plus a bunch of meetings, I can breathe a bit because the sermon is already taken care of. True, I am then back in the same situation as everyone else but inevitably, I find the time to get back ahead within 2-4 weeks.

The reactions I get to this practise have always interested me. I think part of the interest comes from the fact that we tend to allow ourselves to get trapped in the conventional. We do what we do because “everyone” is doing it. Pastors have to preach almost every week and so we prepare a sermon every week—and the conventional approach is to do it the week it is needed.

But being conventional isn’t a law—it’s just conventional. All of us would probably be better off if we took some time to see if we can help ourselves a bit with some unconventional thinking and approaches. What everyone else does might be the best way—or it might not be the best way for us. God made us as individuals who sometimes have unique and unconventional ways that work much better for our specific situations than the conventional and accepted.

My unconventional approach to sermon preparation works for me. Given what I hear from many others, I am pretty sure that it would work for some of my friends in ministry as well but that is their choice. I keep working ahead, not making a lot of noise about it and basically ignoring the fact that it annoys some people to no end. It works for me and doesn’t break any really important rules.

May the peace of God be with you.

CATCHING UP

As I was writing the last post about the never ending nature of ministry, I realized that there is another aspect of ministry that is probably even more of a problem than the fact that nothing is ever done. And that is the fact that in the end, I am always behind. There is always something sitting there that should have been done yesterday or last week or even last month. On some levels, ministry sometimes feels like mad dash to try and get last week’s work done before the end of this week.

I have a meeting report that should have been presented to the church about three weeks ago. I have an unfinished annual report that would be better if I actually got it done before heading out for the annual meeting. I have been promising certain people that I am going to drop in for a visit for long enough that it is embarrassing to see them now. Some stuff, of course, I can’t get behind on—the sermon always has to be ready for Sunday, a reality that often means the work on the sermon pushes something else into the background.

My problem is compounded by the fact that I am a part-time pastor who believes in being part time. I try to be careful with my work hours and try as much as possible to keep within viewing distance of the agreed upon hours. And so, within the context of my work agreement, two things happen:

• Stuff keeps getting put off to as later date, when there will be more time to get it done.
• I work more hours than I should, knowing that when things slow down, I will take some time off.

Basically, I keep telling myself that someday, I will get caught up because things will slow down and there will be time to get everything done and take some time off. It is a good message to give to myself, even though I know that it really isn’t true. It is one of those messages we give ourselves so that we can cope with the uncopable. There will never be enough time to get everything done; I am not actually ever going to catch up; a delayed task that I finish is probably going to be at the expense of some other task or my time.

Ministry has a way of filling up time and space. Some people deal with this reality by running as hard as they can, hoping that they will get it all done on time and perfectly. And while that might sound commendable, it is a process that actually has another name—it is better called burnout.

I decided a long time ago, probably around my first bout of near burnout that a much better approach was learning how to set and keep priorities. In a world when I am always going to be behind, I decided to learn what could slip, how long it could slip and how to measure the consequences of the slip.

So, a sermon has very limited slip time—and not having the sermon done has serious consequences. A pastoral visit, though important, often has more slip time and occasionally, there are no real long term consequences if I don’t get to it this month. A funeral—no slippage and serious consequences if I skip it. Writing a report about the meeting last month, well, so far the slippage hasn’t been noticed by anyone but me and there are limited consequences if I let it slip some more.

In the end, I know that I am never going to get caught up. Even when I tie up some of the delayed stuff, more gets added to the list. I am probably never going to work off all the extra hours of work time. Someday is actually like tomorrow—I keep looking for it but it never comes. But within that context, I set priorities, I get stuff done, I let things slip, I even manage to take some time off. It is never enough, I will never get caught up but then again being caught up isn’t the goal of what I do anyway.

I do what I do because I have been called by God to do it and in the end, I depend on his leading to help me see what needs to be done now, what can be done later and what just might never need to be done.

May the peace of God be with you.

SOMETHING IS FINALLY DONE

There is an empty space in the corner of the basement that I use for a workshop. The cabinet and shelf unit that I have been working on for several months is finally done. It took several weeks longer that I had planned but it did come in under budget, thanks in part to sales and discount scratch off coupons. This was a winter project designed to fill in some of the “free” time I was anticipating during the three months one of the pastorates I serve was shutdown.

As I have posted here before, the time wasn’t as free as I had anticipated and when it was, the weather wasn’t always cooperative, which wouldn’t have been a big problem except for the fact that I have to do major cutting and sanding outside. But eventually, the job got done and I moved the cabinet and shelf into the dining room where it is now filling up with all the stuff that needed a place so that we could get at other stuff.

Each time I walk through the dining room, I look at the finished project and have a sense of accomplishment. I do notice the imperfections and “not quite right” stuff that are incorporated in the piece because of my less than perfect woodworking skills. But even seeing all those doesn’t take away from the fact that the job is done, the project is finished and it is now doing what it was built for and the next time I have to do anything with it will be the day I take it apart so that we can move, a day which isn’t happening anytime soon.

That might seem like a small thing but for me, it is significant. I have spend most of my life involved in ministry: pastor, chaplain, teacher, missionary, counsellor and one of the most clear and unchanging realities about ministry is that completed projects are few and far between. I can spend a week on a sermon, researching and planning and writing and rewriting to get it just right. I stand in the pulpit and preach the sermon, doing an almost perfect job of presenting the message. (Or I could waste time, skimp on the research, present poorly—it happens.) But the job isn’t done—because I have to do the same thing all over again—and again and again.

Or suppose I am teaching a class. I research the topic, read extensively, write out the syllabus and the individual lectures. I plan the assignments. The class begins, I teach and discuss and mark and do all the work. And then, we finish—but it isn’t over because likely as not, I will need to do the same course again for another group or prepare a different course for a different group. So, I work hard and then I start all over again with the same thing.

Ministry keeps going and the stuff I do in ministry just keeps going as well. Even when I finish one chapter in ministry, another opens up. When I realize that I have finished the particular work God has called me to do on one place, I discover that God’s call and leading are taking me to another place where there is work to be done—it might not be exactly the same kind of work but there are enough similarities that the same processes work.

And that probably goes a long way towards explaining why I like woodworking. No matter how long it takes, no matter how complicated the process, no matter how much delay, there will come a point where the work is actually done and I don’t need to do anything more. The project is done—it sits in place, doing the work it was designed to do and I only need to appreciate the enjoyment I got out of doing the work and that I get out of it doing what it was designed to do.

I am comfortable with the reality that ministry doesn’t have clear and easy to notice completions. In many ways, I appreciate the process nature of ministry. I work well in the context of always being in process. But it is also good to have a part of my life where I can point to clear completions, to things that I have finished and which don’t need my input anymore.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING FAITHFUL

This week’s posts have been more on the introspective side and could be interpreted to suggest that I am slipping into the chasm of depression—introspection, especially introspection focused on the realities of my current pastoral settings, can easily go that way. Small and decreasing numbers combined with my age and stage of life could make it easy to feel that not only am I wasting my time now but since I have spent my whole life in ministry with small churches, maybe I have wasted my whole ministry.

And I will openly confess that I am no stranger to that line of thought. When I hear of a colleague or former student who has been called to a larger congregation, I have a tinge (or more) of jealousy. When I realize that my name doesn’t come up much anymore when people are looking for someone to be a part of an important committee, I am simultaneously relieved that I don’t have to make a decision about the extra work and annoyed that I wasn’t even considered.

That being said, the times of jealousy and annoyance are not a major part of my life—they are there but on the scale of how they affect me, they are more like the bald spot I can’t see on the back of my head than the continual pain from my very old knees. I know the bald spot is there but while a full head of hair would be nice, it isn’t something I spend much energy on, except to remember a hat on sunny days—a sunburned bald spot isn’t pleasant.

A year or two after I had begun my first pastoral charge, I got a letter from a large congregation—you know this was a long time ago because it was an actual letter, not an email or text. People did that sort of thing way back then. Anyway, this church, one of the largest in the area at the time, wanted me to submit a resume for consideration as their next pastor. I was home by myself when I got the letter and it was exciting and gratifying and I was sure that this had to be God’s leading. I began packing—at least in my mind, I began packing.

But there was still a sermon to write for the church I was serving and a Bible study to get ready and a call or two to make. I also went for a walk—this was back in the days when my knees didn’t control my activity as much. The day passed and the letter sat on my desk—I was sure that when my wife got home from work, we would both be planning our move.

Except that by the time she got home, I realized that although it was really flattering to be considered for that position, it wasn’t for me. At the time, I realized it wasn’t for me at that point in time but looking back, I now realize that the call to a big congregation wasn’t ever one for me. God had a place and a purpose for me, one that kept me serving and working with small struggling congregations that needed someone to really care for them.

Since that first letter, there have been other letters, emails and phone calls from larger churches. Each one brought much the same reaction—excitement at being considered followed eventually by a clear sense that this wasn’t for me. And it wasn’t because I was avoiding the big churches—it was just that each time, there was the clear sense that I was where I was for a reason and when that reason was taken care of God would clearly show me what was next.

Being faithful has always been important to me, more important than moving up the ladder. I am not suggesting that anyone accepting a call to a larger church isn’t being faithful—I am saying that for me to have accepted any of those calls would have been unfaithful. Most of the people I know serving large congregations are good at what they do and are faithfully serving where they are clearly called.

The facts that I am sometimes jealous of them and often these days don’t really know what I am doing are realities that I am aware of. But the deeper reality is that I have tried to be faithful and that is more important to me than anything.

May the peace of God be with you.

DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.