WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

I am not the leader in the churches I serve, no matter what some of the people who make up the churches think. I don’t want to be the leader and actively resist pressures and temptations to become the leader. And even more, I actively encourage, seek out and develop leaders within the congregation. I am aware that this means I am seriously out of step with a lot of the books and theories of ministry these days, which tend to emphasize that as pastor, I should be and even need to be the pastor.

I have taught and written and mentored theology students over the years of my ministry and have always worked in that context from my bias—they don’t have to be the leader. It feels a bit like trying to hold back the tide at times—being on the wrong side of a cultural trend is exhausting and somewhat isolating. As I approach the end of my time of active pastoral ministry (no date set but it is coming), I have been doing some introspection and asking myself a lot of questions as I think over the various things I have done in ministry.

And one question I keep looking at is the one that provides the title for this post: What difference does it make? So, what difference does it make that I am not the leader? Is this important enough to justify the energy and time I spend over the years practising it, teaching it and resisting the other views? Or was this just some distraction that I could have and should have ignored so that I would have time and energy for other things?

So far, my thinking is that the issue does make a difference, in my context. I work in small churches—that has been where God has called me and what he has gifted me for. And in this context, how the pastor approaches the issue of leadership does make a real difference. Many of the current ideas about ministry come from big churches and, from what I can see and understand from my study, are based on good theory and practise.

But small churches such as I and at least 80% of the rest of North American pastors work with are not big churches. Most of them are not even potential big churches. And most pastors will never pastor a big church—we will spend our ministry doing God’s leading in small and occasionally medium sized churches. And if we try to use the theory and practise necessary for a big church in a small church, both we and the church are in for a rough, painful but relatively short ride.

Small churches generally already have leaders. They generally aren’t trained, qualified, ordained leaders. While many are recognized with official church titles (deacon, elder, trustee, treasures, moderator), more than a few have no official office or title but are nonetheless the leader of the congregation. Often, even a small congregation has more than one of these leaders who generally develop working relationships that range from seriously dysfunctional to seriously functional.

The small church likely doesn’t need another leader. It likely needs a pastor to care for the hurting. It probably needs a teacher to help it grow in its understanding of and practise the faith. It may occasionally need a loving prophet to help it find its ways. It most certainly will need a shepherd to show it the way to the pastures and waters that will nurture it. But another leader—well, to be honest most small congregations need another leader about as much as they need another bill.

The pastor and the leadership in the small church have complimentary and important roles in the church, roles that God can and will use to enable the congregation to become what he knows it can become. But the moment I as the pastor in a small church begin to feel I need to be the leader, I am probably starting down a road that can only lead to problems. The problems come because not only am I not doing my God given job in the congregation but I am then also interfering with others trying to carry out their God given jobs.

It works much better when we all know and seek to fulfill our particular calling, so in the end it does make a difference whether I am the pastor or the leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHY DO I HAVE TO BE THE LEADER?

One of the best paying jobs I ever had while a university student was as a reserve army officer. For a couple of summers, I was an active duty officer, working as a cadet instructor. The pay was great and as an added benefit, I got to play with some neat toys and even run around in the dark firing off blank rounds and throwing flash-bangs.

But those summers weren’t all fun and games. I discovered a few things about myself in the process. I was an officer, someone who was given a great deal of authority. True, I was pretty much the lowest level of officer but most of the time, I was actually with people who were lower in rank than I was, meaning that what I wanted tended to be what happened. I discovered that I liked having that power—and at the same time, I realized that that kind of power can be seductive and extremely dangerous.

I also discovered that in the end, I don’t need that kind of power in my life. I liked it and probably would still like it—but the truth is that having power over other people is as addictive and destructive as any drug. There are people who seem to be able to deal with the dangers of this power but I realized that I am not one of them. I have also seen that many others probably aren’t the ones who can deal with it either.

I think that experience was important for me as I prepared for a career in ministry. I got into ministry just as the ministerial culture was shifting from a pastoral orientation to a leadership orientation. I began ministry understanding that I was to provide spiritual care and guidance and teaching to the people God had called me to shepherd. But more and more, I was being encouraged to lead these people: to tell them what God wanted them to do and then use my leadership to make sure that they got the job done. The books and seminars used words like “vision” and “visionary” and so on, but the whole idea was that I was responsible for leading the church to where it needed to go—and even more, I was responsible for deciding where it needed to go.

Being an introspective introvert, I couldn’t just buy into the books and trends. I needed to know why—and so began my study of leadership as it applies to the faith. I quickly discovered the real question, at least for me. The church, like any organization, needs leaders—but why did I automatically have to be the leader? Why does being given the title “Rev” also confer the supreme leadership of the church on me?

I have yet to find a good answer to that question. I have not yet found any convincing theological or Biblical reason that allows me to automatically equate pastor with leader. In fact, I have discovered a lot of reasons why too much leadership takes away from the ability of an individual to be a pastor. If I am the leader pushing (and even fighting) to get my vision accomplished by the church, I can seriously damage my ability to actually provide pastoral care to someone who might disagree with my vision. Or what of the people who have been slighted by my push to move the reluctant church in the way I see them needing to go? Are they going to be as open to my teaching at Bible Study or my preaching?

The church needs leaders—but why do I automatically have to be the leader just because I am the pastor? There are certainly times and situations when I provide pastorally oriented leadership but I am first of all a pastor and secondarily a teacher. I needed to learn to work from my strengths—and that means that I don’t need to be the leader. The God who called me and gifted me with the pastoral gifts I need also calls and gifts the leaders the church needs. I have discovered that I am at me best when I work my real gifts and calling and encourage others to work their real gifts and calling. I need to be a pastor and teacher—I don’t need to be a leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT THE LEADER

One of the pastorates I serve finally got around to holding our annual meeting. We tend to have that meeting fairly late in the year because of things like the possibility of bad weather in the early part of the year (snow in Nova Scotia in January?), the need to hold several other meetings before that meeting (who can meet with who when?) and mostly because most of us really don’t much like meetings.

So, we gathered for the meeting and amid the chatter and discussion and all the rest that goes with a meeting of people who like each other and don’t like meetings, someone made a comment that bothered me. In the course of a discussion about something that we were doing or going to do, one of the people looked at me and said something like, “You are our leader”.

The comment bothered me because I don’t want to be a leader. I am not interested in being a leader. I am, I realize, a leader in some areas of our church life and even at times in our denominational life but in general, leader is not a title I use about myself nor one that I seek. If I need to describe my role, I prefer pastor or teacher.

I realize that this puts me at odds with the majority of ministry practitioners these days, as well as with the majority of those who teach and write about ministry. Some of that may be my age, although many of those espousing the leadership mantle are close in age to me. Some of it may be my basic personality—I am a somewhat introverted individual who basically likes to do my own thing. I like neither being a leader nor being led. I can do both when I need to be prefer to work in situations where there is a more free-flowing, less formal structure that allows me and others to work out our gifts and roles together.

For me, that means that my ministry doesn’t focus on my leadership. In the church meeting that sparked this post, we have several leaders. One leads well when we deal with organizational needs. Another leads well when it comes to our financial needs. Another always has a handle on our music needs. One of the people there doesn’t generally say a lot but when he does, we tend to accept his leadership. We have a variety of leaders in our group and we have learned that when we let each one express their leadership abilities and gifts, we are stronger.

There is even a leadership role for me in that mix. I tend to provide leadership is our Bible Study and our ministry focus—but since we have some others who have insights and ideas and proven abilities is those areas, I am not the sole leader even there. I can and do step up to the leadership plate when necessary but in truth, I much prefer it when someone else provides the necessary leadership.

That is not to say that I am passive and laisse-faire in my ministry. I work hard at developing and presenting the teaching I believe God is calling our church to look at. I seek to identify and develop the gifts among our people. I am not afraid to speak clearly and directly to issues and concerns that will affect our overall church health. I take an active part in determining the direction of our ministry and regularly present ideas and proposals and plans to the church for discussion and implementation—but I do all this in the context of not seeing myself as the leader of the church. I am one of many, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to the best of my ability for the sake of the whole church.

I will gladly accept the role of teacher in our church. I am comfortable with the role of pastor for our church. I am able to function as a counsellor or therapist when necessary and as time allows for our church. But leader—well, I can handle that as long as we all understand that I am not the leader, but only one among many leaders, all of us pooling our leadership to enable God’s will to be done in and through our church.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOLLOW THE LEADER

I grew up in a town church that had an average sized congregation for that day—in the 60s, rural Atlantic Canadian churches had not yet begun to feel the downturn in church attendance and membership that began in that decade. So, our congregation of 200 or so carried out church in a variety of ways. We had lots of worship services—two every Sunday.

The morning worship was a formal, structured worship event while the evening was a more relaxed worship—we would often begin with a hymn sing where members of the congregation would pick their favourite hymn. That wasn’t as daunting a task for the organist as it might sound—most of the hymns were predictable, picked by the same people week after week. There were always a few surprises, like when someone was visiting and picked an unfamiliar hymn or especially when we members of the younger attendees tried to mess things up by suggesting random numbers.

After I finished struggling with God’s call to ministry, I discovered a hymn that I could regularly call out at those hymn sings and at others wherever I was. I love the hymn, “Anywhere With Jesus”. I do need to explain the attraction of the hymn though. The chorus of the hymn proclaims that because of our faith, we can go anywhere without fear because we know that Jesus is with us. It is a powerful, inspiring hymn but I don’t think I like it because of my total agreement with its message.

Theologically, I agree with the hymn—God is with us and we never go anywhere without the presence of God. In fact, God is where we leave from, he goes with us and he is waiting for us when we arrive. The presence of God is one of the foundational beliefs of my faith, something that has been a part of my Christian thinking, preaching and teaching from the beginning.

But I have to confess that I struggle with following God. I am not always ready and willing to go where God wants me and do what God wants me to do. I don’t know if you have noticed but God has this well established practise of calling us to places and things that we would rather not be involved in. I didn’t struggle with God calling me to serve as a missionary but I have always struggled with a calling to be a pastor. I didn’t much struggle with a calling to study and learn—that really appealed and appeals to my introversion—but I really struggle with a calling to engage in helping real people with real problems—that tends to conflict with my introversion.

And so I pick the hymn “Anywhere with Jesus” not as an affirmation of my deep, powerful faith that propels me onward and upward in ever more heroic service of God in places where people of lesser faith fear to tread. No, I pick the hymn as a heartfelt prayer of what I would like to be true. I would like to claim that I can go anywhere with Jesus. I actually believe that I can go anywhere with Jesus—but in practise, I am hesitant, afraid and hoping that God has got his assignment papers mixed up. I know that he hasn’t and I know that he will go with me and I know that if I follow, he will be there and that therefore things will work out—but I still struggle.

And so I pick and sing the hymn, hoping that it, along with all my other spiritual practises will help me surrender to the calling that God has set before me. Mostly, I do go anywhere that God calls—although the process of getting there isn’t always easy or peaceful or painless. Mostly, following and going anywhere works out, although there are occasionally glitches and problems. Mostly, I am faithful and the words of the hymn become a reality.

I try to follow the leader but I know the difficulty, the fear, the apprehension that comes from following God into whatever he has called me to. I also know that he is with me and will be with me—and so I sing the hymn, using it as a sign of my desire to actually be able to follow God anywhere.

May the peace of God be with you.

RETIREMENT AGE

Sometimes, when I need a break from whatever I am working on but don’t want to “waste” time, I log on to our denominational website. I don’t do that from some great desire to discover what my denomination is doing—I generally know what I need to know from other sources. I go to the website because one of the resources there is a page devoted to the changes in status of the clergy in our denomination. I know many of the clergy but because of geography, time and inertia, I don’t connect with many of them on a regular basis.

But by checking the website, I can discover who is doing what—it makes a great way to catch up with people I studied with, others I have met along the way, students I have taught and so on. These days when I check the site, I am struck by two things, both of which sort of point out something similar.

First, I read a lot of names of people I don’t know. There have always been some clergy I didn’t know but often, I would have at least heard the name from someone else. But these days, the number of names I don’t know seems to be in the majority. The few times I have tried to find out who they are, I have discovered that they are people who have come into ministry from another career or who are younger graduates. I don’t know them because I am not as involved in the denomination structures or educational process as I once was.

It takes a certain amount of energy to work as a pastor and another amount of energy to be involved in denominational activities and in the last few years, I have been choosing to conserve my energy by not having as much involvement outside the local churches I pastor.

The other thing I notice as I read through the changes page of the website is the number of people who are as the site describes it “retiring from active ministry”. Now, these people, I tend to know quite well. Some were pastors who were active when I started out. A few I studied with. Some I met during my stints on denominational committees and boards. A few were students I taught—second vocation, older students but students I taught. I read those lists, do some rudimentary math and realize that while some of those retiring are older than I am, I significant number are my age—and some are younger than me.

Both discoveries point in the same direction for me—I am getting old. I passed the official retirement age on my last birthday. Many of my friends in ministry are retired or have announced their retirement. In the churches I pastor, the majority of the congregations are retired—and not a few of them are younger than I am.

So, I ask myself, why am I still working? I am not working for financial reasons. Although ministry doesn’t pay a lot, my denomination has a good pension plan, especially for those of us who have been in it for 40+ years—compound interest over that period of time works wonders.

Nor am I still working because I am a Type A person who must always be at the centre of things and who will shrivel up and die without a job to use as my definition of self. I have tons of things I would prefer to be doing: more woodworking, gardening, travelling, reading, photography are all appealing but are somewhat on hold because of the demands of pastoral ministry.

So, I am old enough to retire. I can afford to retire. I have plans for a post retirement life. But I am still working and plan to be doing so for a while yet. Why? Well, the best I can say is that I believe that this is what God wants me to be doing here and now. I don’t think God’s kingdom will fall apart if I retire but I do believe that God still has something to accomplish through my efforts and so I am trying to be faithful.

I am pretty sure that I will be retiring someday but not today.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOT DEPRESSED

Because depression tends to be one of my less desired coping mechanisms, I am generally on the lookout for signs that I am slipping into another bout of the familiar low level, persistent depression that steals enjoyment from me and those around me. There are some clear signs that I have learned to watch for over the years. Feeling tired is one, especially if I find myself telling myself “I’m tired” a lot. Inability to get out of the chair is another, as is becoming more and more focused on TV or Youtube. Depression also brings an increase in appetite in its early stages, especially for junk food, cheese sandwiches and lots of sugar. Disturbed sleep patterns are also part of the warning package.

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a lot of these symptoms and began to get a bit worried/prepared for another bout of depression. But as I began the process of looking at what was going on and trying to discover what was pushing me towards depression, I discovered that although the symptoms might be there, I am not actually depressed.

I am tired, there is no question about that. But I actually know why I am tired. The past three months have been extra busy for a variety of reasons and I simply don’t have the same energy level I had when I was younger. Physically, emotionally and intellectually, I get tired sooner and more often. But being tired isn’t the same as being depressed.

I also found myself sitting more—but some of that has to do with arthritic knees that react poorly to standing and walking and stuff like that. However, since they also react poorly to long bouts of sitting, I realized that I might sit a lot but I also moved around a lot—I just don’t go for hour long walks like I used to.

I do spend time in front of the TV and actually watch Youtube videos. But I have limits and keep them. The TV in the kitchen is on when I am cooking and I watch an hour or so before the news in the evening. Youtube, well, I watch one or two as a break and then move on to something else a bit more constructive.

I do have an appetite for chips, cheese sandwiches and extra cookies, which I sometimes give into. But in truth, I have those appetites anyway and have to set limits all the time. Having the desire for a bag of chips and cheese sandwich isn’t really a sign of depression—it’s the giving into the desire too many times that is the real symptom and so far, I have been doing okay there. I am also sleeping well, or at least as well as I normally do—even my non-depressed self doesn’t often have an unbroken night of sleep.

So, the signs are there but I am not depressed. I am definitely tired, definitely sitting more and dealing with other stuff but right now, I am not depressed. And for me, that is important. I probably should be depressed—I definitely have been at other points in my life when I have been stressed from work and over-tired but right now, I am not depressed.

I am not rejoicing too loudly or emphatically. I am not seeing this lack of depression as a sign that I have finally been freed from the pain of depression. I am not going to write a book on how I overcame a life time of low level depression. I am not going to blog about how God has delivered me from the demons of depression.

No, I am not going to do any of that. I can’t guarantee that I won’t be depressed again. So, this is what I am going to do.

I will take a nap or two. I am going to watch a Youtube video or two. I am going to write a sermon or two, attend a meeting or two, lead Bible studies and worship, do some thinking about the churches’ directions, read some books, take a short walk and even mow the lawn. I am going to deal with what is going on without having to deal with the overlay of low-level depression that sometimes hits when circumstances are like they are now. But for now, I am not depressed and I can enjoy that.

May the peace of God be with you.

EFFECTIVE PRAYER

As I write this, I am sitting looking out the window, wondering of the light rain is going to get worse or simply stop. This is more than just curiosity—what I do for the rest of the day depends on what the rain does. If it stops, I get to mow the lawn and if it doesn’t stop, well, then I might be forced to stay in my chair and do some reading. I suppose I could pray about it—but given that I am not really sure which outcome I want, my prayers would be somewhat confused and pointless. In the end, I will wait for a while and see what it looks like when I want to start the mower.

I know some people who would spend time in prayer about that decision. I know some who could turn it in to a significant prayer session, as they wrestle with their ambivalence over mowing and make the ultimate decision part of some spiritual struggle involving their desires, God’s sovereignty over creation and the sinful influences that get involved in the process. It might sound like I am making light of such people but I am not. For some people, the decision about mowing is probably part of a much bigger issue that they are working through. It could also be a somewhat inflated struggle to avoid dealing with other, more painful issues.

But for me, the whole thing is just part of my day without much in the way of spiritual significance and without much need for a prayerful consideration. I will pretty much wait and see what the weather is like when I am ready to mow and decide then. I am not going to pray about it and I am definitely not going to make it part of some spiritual battle.

I have enough of that without creating issues. I struggle with helping the churches I pastor discover the leading of God for their situations. I wonder about my future—retirement is becoming more and more an option for me. I worry about my children—parents always worry about children. I actually pray about those things. Now, I rarely sit down or kneel down and engage in what some writers call “a season of prayer”.

More often than now, the prayer is a semi-conscious, “What do I do about that, Lord” as I am driving to one church function or another or mowing the lawn or changing the channel on the TV. Sometimes, I carry on a significant conversation with God while I am driving—I love long drives by myself just for that reason. Sometimes, when I am cooking supper, I am chopping vegetables and at another level, pondering the preaching plan for the next three months for one pastorate or the other—a pondering that includes connecting with God who ultimately knows what I should be preaching on.

In essence, I am saying that I have a chaotic, sporadic, disorganized prayer life. I don’t have a specific prayer time or prayer list or prayer corner or prayer language. There are two very important things that I need to say about that. This chaotic and disorganized approach works for me now. I find it helps me connect with God when and as I need to. I discover anew the reality of God’s presence and get the direction I need in a way that works for me. I have not always used this approach and I may change sometime in the future—but for now, this works and allows me to pray effectively.

The second thing I need to say is that my approach doesn’t have to work for anyone else and I am not recommending it. Don’t do what I do just because I do it. An effective prayer life grows out of the needs, experiences and spirituality of the individual. It involves discovering what helps an individual be open to the presence of God and be honest in the presence of God. And because we are all different, we might be able to get ideas and suggestions from others but we can probably never pray the way they pray—we need to pray our own prayers in our way so that we can connect with the God who loves us in our individuality.

And the rain looks like it is stopping so I probably have to mow soon.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAYING MY PRAYERS

Over the years, I have discovered that one of the most effective tools for some forms of ministry is a cup of coffee and one of the most effective locations for that ministry is in a coffee shop. When I was younger, that particular approach to ministry was custom made for me—I love coffee and didn’t need any excuse to drink coffee. These days, I have to be a bit more careful about coffee and generally order decaf but the ministry works just as well without or without caffeine.

Because I tend to be an introvert, I generally don’t initiate too many of these coffee connections. But over the years, there have been a fair number of people who have wanted to get together for coffee and I am generally glad to accept the invitation, even to the point of being willing to pay for the coffee for both of us. Some of these invitations will be a conversation between friends, where we go back and forth and joke and laugh and touch on serious stuff and all the rest—and sometimes, in those conversations, I might even come close to talking about half the time, which is really significant for an introvert like me.

Other coffee conversations are more focused—we are together because both of us know that the other person wants/needs this conversation to deal with an issue. It isn’t really counselling or ministry because we are doing it over coffee at the coffee shop—but underneath, we both know that this is serious stuff and I am going to be expected to drink my coffee and be as professional as possible while both of us pretend that this is really a coffee conversation. I am fine with that, although I do reserve the right to get professional and suggest real counselling if the problem is serious enough.

So, what does this have to do with prayer, particularly my prayers? I am working this through at this point but I do think that there is a connection between my coffee conversations and my personal prayer life. While I don’t actually have much in the way of an organized private prayer life, I do spend time both talking to and listening to God. And even though these times don’t generally involve coffee, there are some similarities.

I think I listen to and for God a lot. When I am reading the Bible, when I am doing my study for a sermon or a Bible study, when I am contemplating the congregations I have been called to pastor, when I am depressed, when I am desperately trying to figure out where I am going with the next sermon plan—at all those times, I am deeply aware that I need some serious divine guidance and insight and wisdom. I generally don’t preface those times with a specific request for God to guide me—but I am listening for the guidance. On many levels, that isn’t much different than me and my friend engaging in pastoral ministry in the coffee shop without calling it pastoral ministry.

Sometimes, I do engage in serious talk with God: when I am frustrated and tired and verging on depression, I have a tendency to spill my anger and hurt and frustration—and that looks and sounds a whole lot like some of the coffee conversations that I have had in various coffee shops over the years. After I pour out whatever is there, I discover the peace that God continually promises, provided, of course, I remember to be willing to listen to him. That does sometimes take a while but so far, I have always ended up listening and discovering the presence of God.

The one difference I can see between my prayers and my coffee shop experiences is that I don’t actually have to go to a coffee shop and I don’t need the coffee. In fact, my personal prayer process generally works better when I am by myself with God. With some people, I need to go to the coffee shop for that—but with God and my prayers, any place and any time works, which is a really good thing because in the area where I live, it is quite a drive to get to a 24 hour coffee shop.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

For a while now, I have been pondering a reality of my spiritual life. As a pastor, I pray a lot—every worship service has several prayers included, as well as the prayer I have with the choir before we begin. It is not unusual for me to pray with parishioners before or after worship if the situation warrants it. When there is a meal or fellowship time, I pray for the food. When I make a pastoral visit in a home or hospital, I generally pray with the people I visit. I have also prayed during phone calls and occasionally on the street with someone who obviously needs the divine support that prayer helps us to remember. Overall, I pray a lot.

Except, I actually don’t, at least outside of professional prayers. My personal prayer life has gone through a lot of phases but for the last few years, I don’t actually have a specific prayer time. I used to have long and ever growing prayer lists: one for the ministry I was involved in, one for family and friends, one for things in the news that caught my eye. I would read my Bible and then pray through the lists. Sometimes the lists were so long that I would do some lists some days and other lists on other days—organizing is one of my gifts.

But one day, I realized that the prayer list driven prayers were just not doing it for me. I realized that I was just running over the names and topics as if I was reading the grocery list. I wasn’t really involved in the list—I wasn’t actually sure that what I was doing could actually be classified as prayer. Now, before I go further, let me assure anyone who used and finds value in prayer lists that I am not going to bash the process or people who do it. I am dealing with my personal prayers, not someone else’s. I know that prayer lists are an important spiritual aid for many people and that is great—I support and encourage anything that helps people grow in faith.

But for me, the process wasn’t working and so one day during my morning devotional time, I simply decided to stop doing the lists. I threw out the papers and didn’t do it anymore. I still have a devotional time but it involves reading the Bible, which has been and is important to my spiritual development. I could perhaps suggest that I have developed some alternate devotional technique that involves me praying the Scripture that I am reading but that really isn’t the case. When I read the Bible, I am thinking and focused on what I am reading.

Sometimes, when I am sitting on my office (the Ikea chair by the living room window), I close my eyes and engage in prayer about some issue in ministry or my life that concerns me. I thought this might be a good prayer technique and it is a great technique, for the 30 seconds it takes me to fall asleep. It is probably valuable but then again that might just be the result of the nap.

As I have pondered this over the last few years, I realized that my prayer life kind of reflects the rest of my life. In most of my relationships, I don’t actually talk a lot. Outside of preaching and some parts of Bible Study, I generally do a whole lot more listening than I do talking. I am quite at home listening to people and generally feel most comfortable in a conversation when I get to listen and others get to talk.

I am not an entirely passive individual though. I can and do talk—and can be quite forceful when I need to be. But even then, I am likely going to say what I need to say with as few words as possible—why use 10 words when 2 will are perfectly capable of expressing everything I want to say?

So, with that insight in place, I looked at my personal prayers again. I don’t actually talk to God a lot—but when I do, it is times that are important to me and I say what I need to say with the same economy of words I use in any conversation. I try to listen to and for God. So, maybe I do pray—in a way that fits my personality. For now, it seems to work for me—but that just might be due more to the limitless grace of God than any great spiritual wisdom on my part.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I DO?

I often find myself in a bit of a quandary when it comes to recommending ways to begin reading the Bible. I have a plan and process that has been working very well for me for many years. It allows me to read through the Bible in about a year and ensures that I am going to get my reading done. But since my particular plan involves reading the Bible while I am using the exercise bike, some people think it is too difficult.

And to be honest, I can understand their problem—my particular plan for reading the Bible involves two things that most North Americans talk a lot about doing but rarely do: exercise and Bible reading. This particular plan works well for me but I don’t actually recommend it for others. Just like a lot other plans don’t work for me, I know mine doesn’t work well for others.

One I saw suggested a few years ago, for example, involved the use of coloured highlighters. A person would read and then use the highlighter to categorize different parts of the reading. It might work well for some people but given my colour blindness, I didn’t even bother giving it consideration.

But I am a pastor and even more, a pastor who encourages people to read the Bible—and so I need to have something to recommend to people. Since I don’t have workable plan that will enable everyone to immediately fall in love with reading the Bible, I offer suggestions that they can use to develop their own plan. My suggestions include:

• Picking the right translation. We live in a age where English speakers have a wealth of translations to pick from. Every type, style and level of English has a translation these days. Everyone has the opportunity to pick a translation that uses their words in their way. That is important because as much as I love the traditional King James Version, it is a foreign language to most people. A comfortable translation choice allows God to speak the language of the reader, a very important consideration. By the way, audio Bibles are also an option.

• Pick the right time and place. Strange as it may seem, not everyone finds an early morning session on an exercise bike the ideal Bible reading time. Each of us has the best time of the day to concentrate and the spot that works best for us. If reading bits during the commercials of a TV show works and allows someone to read the Bible, no problem. I really don’t care when or how people read, I just want them to read.

• Begin with the Gospels. I often suggest the Gospel of Luke mostly because the reader can then move on to Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts. Beginning with the story of Jesus and the story of the church helps us understand the basics of the faith and provides a gentle and interesting introduction to the Bible. The thickets of Leviticus and Numbers are somewhat easier when the reader is grounded in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament.

• Set goals. As has often been said, it we aim at nothing, we are sure to hit it. Setting goals for our Bible reading gives us some incentive to keep working. I would suggest modest goals to start with—rather than committing to reading the whole Bible in a week, commit to reading Luke in two weeks or something like that. When that goal is accomplished, move on to another, more demanding goal until the whole Bible is finished. Then, start over again.

• Make use of resources. There are lots of valuable Bible reading resources. There are reading plans that give readings that allow the whole Bible to be covered in 1, 2 or 3 years. Some publishers actually print Bibles based on these plans. There are Bible handbooks that give brief summaries and commentary on the books of the Bible—these help us know what we are reading and give some help with understanding. A Bible reading group could also be a good resource.

For me, the ultimate goal is to encourage everyone to read God’s words to humanity. A lot of our spiritual struggling and confusion and difficulty becomes less of a problem when we know what God has carefully written down for us. And, it you find it easiest to do that while on an exercise bike, that is even better.

May the peace of God be with you.