A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A GOOD CHURCH

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.

Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.

The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.

To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.

No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.

There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.

Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.

Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAITING

Both the Bible study groups I pretend to lead keep coming back to Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5.22-23, where we are told, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (NIV) By now, some of the members of the group have the entire list memorized—although to be fair, I do have to say that some of them had the list memorized before we started using the verse so much in our study.

Those who have memorized the verse don’t need to look it up every time we refer to it. I have to look up the verse. Mentally, I tell myself I am looking it up to ensure that I get the right words in the right order—with the wealth translations available these days, that just makes sense. And while that is a very practical and prudent reason for looking up a verse of Scripture, there is another reason I look up the verse: I can’t actually remember the list beyond the first four. This isn’t a secret—I have confessed this to both Bible study groups and anyone else who has occasion to discuss the verse with me.

I am not sure why I have trouble remembering the list but I suspect that it has something to do with the fourth fruit of the Spirit, patience. I like to think that I am patient but in truth, I am not the most patient person in the world. I really don’t like waiting. I can remember long sleepless nights as a child while I waited for Christmas Eve to turn into Christmas morning. Waiting for anything important is difficult.

Right now, I am waiting to go into the hospital for surgery. While all surgery is serious and brings a certain amount of risk, all of which has been carefully explained to me a couple of times, I am not overly anxious about the surgery. I have confidence in the surgeon and know the hospital’s reputation and have lots of people praying for me in the process.

But I have been struggling with significant impatience in this process. I have known since early in the year that this was coming. My surgery date wasn’t as early as the surgeon had first suggested because of circumstances beyond his control and so the waiting has been even longer than we anticipated.

The first part of the wait was okay—I was busy and could ignore the whole thing. But once I had a specific date and began to make arrangements, the impatience kicked in—I just wanted to get the thing done. The closer the day comes, the more impatient I become. It hasn’t affected my work—if anything, I am doing more work as I prepare for the surgery and resulting time off. Making arrangements for the various responsibilities I have, helping groups decide what to do during my absence, getting stuff done before I am off—all these and more have taken up my time.

But I just want to get the thing done. Waiting is a pain. And the closer and closer it gets, the slower time passes and the more I want it to hurry up. Last week was slow and frustrating. This week is worse because I have the surgery in two days. I am pretty sure that I won’t be sleeping all that much or well the next two nights as my impatience kicks into high gear. Time will perform a psychological miracle and slow to a crawl, with seconds taking hours and two days becoming an eternity as I wait.

However, what I lack in patience, I make up for in trust. I might be seriously impatient about getting there but I have a strong sense of peace about the whole thing. Peace, those of you who have memorized the verse in question will remember, is the third fruit of the Spirit. Being third means it is in my remembered list of the fruit. I may not be a very patient person at this point, but I am at peace. No matter what happens, I know that God is with me. Now, if he would just give the time wheel a bit of a nudge, that would be great.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE WEATHER

According to the calendar and the trees outside, the grass that has already been mowed once, the dandelions that somehow escaped the mover, the geese and other migratory birds that are back, it is spring in Nova Scotia. But no matter what the signs suggest, it has been a cold, wet, miserable spring. We are Canadian so we generally endure. We have lots of ways of making ourselves feel “better” about the slow coming of warm sunny weather.

All the rain is good for the farmers. Of course, we have to ignore the reality that although they might be grateful for the rain, it makes it pretty much impossible to get fields ready for planting—tractors churn the soil into mud and then get stuck. The rain also makes the grass grow—as if that is a good thing to someone like me whose dislike of mowing lawns verges on the pathological. And there is always the old saying, “April showers bring May flowers”, which might be somewhat helpful if May had some actual sunshine that encouraged us to get out and find the may flowers.

In the end, the weather is the weather. We live with whatever comes. Whether the weather is good or bad, it does have a vital function in human relationships—it gives us something to talk about. That is more than just a cynical attempt at humour. Talking about the weather may well be one of the most common conversational themes among people and as such, it serves a vital role in human relationships.

Talking about the weather is more than small talk. It actually serves as a powerful tool that helps us determine whether we can and should engage in further communication. It allows us to gauge the status of the person we are meeting without asking outright if they are in a good mood and if it is safe to talk to them. Talking about the weather tells us a lot about the individual, their current state and the relative value and safety of carrying on with the conversation.

Most human are totally unaware that this is what we are doing when we talk about the weather. Some, in fact, downplay and even claim to hate talking about the weather. They believe such small talk gets in the way of real conversation. My experience has been that if we aren’t going to talk about the weather with someone, we probably aren’t going to have a pleasant, good or constructive conversation with the person. We might talk but without the lubricant and evaluation provided by the weather discussion, we have no sense of the other’s context or state and rather than enter the serious side of the conversation prepared, we go in cold and have to discover the context and status while at the same time dealing with whatever heavy stuff the conversation brings.

So, over the years, I have learned to deeply appreciate small talk, discussions about the weather, TV shows, new cars (and old cars), kids and grandkids and so on. Sometimes, the small talk has been interesting all by itself—one friend years ago had a seemingly inexhaustible store of old sayings related to the weather that I found fascinating and more than a bit true. Sometimes, the small talk has been the whole conversation—we complain about the wet, the dry, the cold, the heat and then move on. But somehow, something has been put in place that allows a deeper conversation somewhere down the road.

And occasionally, the weather talk leads directly to a significant and serious conversation that likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to give the right signals during the discussion of the wet or dry or snowy weather.

Mostly, I don’t care about what the weather is. I do appreciate rain on the days I am supposed to mow the lawn because it gives me an excuse to sit inside and read or write. But I do deeply appreciate the weather because of its profound effect in human interaction. If we can talk comfortably about the weather, we set the stage for being able to comfortably talk about almost anything. So, we have had a wet, cold, miserable spring—think about how many conversations have been able to grow and flourish from that wonderful beginning.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE LIFE

I am going to be a preacher in this post. When we preachers tell stories in our sermons, we have to be careful. We want people to be able to identify with the story but we don’t want anyone to identify the actual persons or events in the story so we engage in a lot of conflation, obfuscation and editing of the story. I don’t want to say that we lie or make up stories because that would be unpreacherly. We do, however, take more than a few liberties to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you about my friend—a person whom I have never really met but who borrows bits and pieces from lots of people I have met, read about or listened to gossip about. My friend suffers from some learning disabilities, which made school a difficult process. She (or he) was also abused in a variety of ways by a variety of people: neglected by parents, beaten by siblings, sexually abused by family and strangers. They ended up in the child welfare system, where sometimes they had good homes and sometimes had the homes all TV shows love to show.

Along the way, it was discovered that they had some major chronic and incurable health problems which were sort of controlled by medication but which created some major limits physically and emotionally and financially.

I could go on but why bother—the point of the story is that my imaginary friend has the deck seriously stacked against them. Actually, let’s add the fact that they were born in a poor rural community in a country where poverty is endemic and the government so corrupt that the poverty is institutionalized.

When faced with a life with as many difficulties and drawbacks and roadblocks as this, most people choose to live. Suicide is always an option and while suicide rates are high, they are not as high as they might be. No matter how difficult the life situation, most people choose to live for as long and as well as they can. They will fight to live. They may steal to get food, seek counselling to deal with their demons, beg to get medicine, illegally cross borders to get safety, start a charity to benefit themselves and others, find a tutor to explain the realities of math, fall prey to a scam artist or cult leader promising something, join a church, get community support for a power wheelchair—but they will keep going, seeking to live as best as they can given the realities of life.

And the truth is that most of us do that. We are somehow designed to choose life, no matter what. Certainly, there are some for whom the prospect of continued life is too much and they choose not life—but given number of people and the number of issues, limits and problems all of us face, the deep and powerful reality is that the majority of people choose to live. We almost always manage to find some hope that keeps us going.

Right now, I sit here writing this suffering with serious arthritic pain resulting from mowing the lawn and the dampness from the coming rain. But I am writing, not sitting moaning and groaning, although I do some of that at times. But like most of the rest of the world, I am going to keep going: writing, working, watching TV, walking (or limping), preaching sermons and helping others as they also keep going.

We are designed to live, to thrive and grow. We find hope in the most hopeless of situations. While we might not thrive in someone else’s life, we all work at coping with our own life. That seems to be a part of our God-given nature—we are hard wired to live and seek the best life we can, which means that we will life with, around and through almost anything. Those who find it too much are few and far between and we need to view them with compassion rather than judgement. But for most of us, we are going to keep going, no matter what.

This drive to live is, I think, one of God’s blessings. Our human sin makes life hard and difficult—but our divinely given drive to live keeps us going.

May the peace of God be with you.

COUNTDOWN

I have to have some surgery in the near future. All surgery is invasive and brings a variety of risks, some of them potentially serious, as the surgeon explained. However, the benefits of this particular surgery clearly outweigh the dangers and so I am waiting. Because of various factors beyond my and the surgeon’s control, the wait has been longer than either of us anticipated when we began this process.

Essentially, that means I have spent the past few months delaying and postponing and tentatively scheduling things, especially in my ministry. For a while, it looked like the date might fall around Easter, which meant I was tentatively planning our Easter services, half-expecting (and seriously hoping) someone else would be doing them. Then, it was winter vacation—we weren’t sure our winter trip to kids and grandkids would work out. Eventually, both Easter and the vacation happened.

And best of all, I got a date—as solid a date as one can get in any medical system. So now, I find myself dividing life and ministry into before and after surgery. When we talk about doing something in the churches, we need to decide if we can do it before or after my sick leave. Some stuff, like the ministry planning meeting for one pastorate, I would like to do before I am off, so that when I get back, we can jump right into work.

Some stuff, like the meeting at the other pastorate to discuss buildings and related stuff would be nice but can be put off—although the reality is that if we put it off, it likely won’t happen until fall because my sick leave likely ends at about the time most people stop wanting to have meetings because of the summer.

So, the churches and I find ourselves making ministry decisions based on the date of my surgery. For me, that is an interesting place to be in. Normally, my time and situation aren’t a big factor in the decisions we make as far as dates are concerned. As I jokingly tell church people, I am getting paid to be there and so unless the meeting falls on my previously scheduled vacation, I will be there. Many times, even my vacation has been scheduled around church events.

Decisions are made based on which deacon has to be away; how many regulars can’t make the meeting; who is going to have family visiting; which couple is having a significant celebration on the day we want to have a church picnic and so on. Those are all legitimate reasons to consider when scheduling a meeting or activity, at least as far as I am concerned. But as pastor, well, I am paid to work for the church and generally, that means my schedule flexes more than the church schedule.

I don’t have a problem with that—that’s why I get the big bucks. Well, actually, it is part of my calling. I committed to serving God through serving the churches and that involves a certain amount of flex in my planning. It is generally easier to make my plans flexible than it is to try and flex plans for half a dozen or more others.

But for now, everything seems to hang on my surgery and recovery. The churches aren’t going to be on hold for that period of time but we are dividing stuff up into before surgery and after surgery. Now, as a committed pastor, I should probably write that I feel guilty about that—but I actually don’t. I would prefer not to need the surgery but I do and that does affect the church.

But we are a church, a gathering of people who seek to work together to serve God, making allowances and flexing plans based on the needs of all our members. While I am generally one of the more flexible players in the process, this time I can’t be. The churches are comfortable with that, I am comfortable with that—and so we are all spending these days counting down to surgery day and working around this disruption in ministry. Right now, most stuff is being seen as pre- or post-surgery. That, for me, is part of the essence of a healthy church—we deal with the needs of our members, including the needs of the pastor.

May the peace of God be with you.

WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE

I am feeling a bit down on myself right now. For some reason, I have ended up in a couple of situations saying things that probably would have been better left unsaid. What I actually said wasn’t false, it wasn’t malicious and it didn’t cause any harm—but all the same, it was probably the wrong things to say in the context where I said it. Nobody was upset by what I said and there were no serious consequences. But I recognized that somehow, I had crossed a line I don’t normally cross.

The fact that I did it once would be unusual but I actually went too far twice—in different contexts and about different things but both times, I realized that I said too much to the wrong people. That by itself is somewhat surprising. I am an introvert with a very strong listening gift, which means that most times in a group setting, I am the one in the group who is helping everyone else talk and share. I am also often the one people look at when they are sharing something difficult or painful.

But here I was in the group talking—and talking too much, taking the group in a very different direction than our stated purpose and in the process giving people too much information that they really didn’t need and which wasn’t all that helpful in the context. I am feeling kind of something which although I can’t exactly describe is somewhat negative.

My first response was to do what I always do when something isn’t right: I analyse. I needed to know what prompted the over sharing. Interestingly enough, each infraction had a different reason. In the first case, our group was given a discussion question that I couldn’t answer for a variety of reasons. Instead of letting the group carry on, I blurted out my inability and essentially stopped the group process. I am pretty sure that that was result of being tired and therefore less able to discipline myself—my normally efficient self-censor was off taking a nap.

The second time was different. Someone asked me a question and in the process of answering, I went a bit too far. I knew a lot about the question they asked and once started on the answer, the teacher inside kicked into gear and I kept going after I had given the questioner everything they wanted to know—and then I proceeded to give them lots that they didn’t want or need to know. Sometimes, my teacher likes showing off.

So, different reasons for the same behaviour. Given that there were no negative consequences that amounted to anything, it might seem like I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill. But I like to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. It is part of my continual growth emotionally and spiritually. Knowing why I do what I do, or knowing as much as I can about why I do what I do is important to my continued growth.

I don’t want to go with the flow and not understand myself. I want to know what rough edges still need sanding, what holes need patching, what weak spots need shoring up. I think that is all part of personal and spiritual growth. Yes, I am what I am—but my faith teaches me that I am not what I could be. God loves me as I am—but he also loves me enough to encourage and help me to become what I can be.

And it is important to me to be involved personally in the development process that God has going on in my life. I believe I went too far both times. I see something that I need to work on. I don’t think I am a failure or a hopeless case. I goofed. I messed up. What now?

Well, I figured out what went wrong. God has already forgiven me. I can and will forgive me. And together, God and I will move on, continuing to work at the project of helping me become what God knows I can become. I hope I won’t make those same mistakes again—but if I do, well, God’s grace is big enough to deal with it.

May the peace of God be with you.

A RAINY DAY

As I write this, we are experiencing what some might consider a typical Nova Scotia April day: it is raining, the wind is blowing. It is dark, dreary and feels cold and damp even with the heat turned on. The gloomy day is made gloomier because April in Nova Scotia is a real in-between month. We have no snow, which deeply pleases most people. But the trees are still barren sticks, lawns are a brown mess of dead grass, left over leaves and fallen branches. A rainy April day in Nova Scotia is filled with nothing—everything worthwhile is either gone (cross country skiing, winter trips to warm places, the TV series) or yet to come (green grass, leaves, sunshine, summer vacation).

So what, I wonder, do I do on a rainy day in April? Well, to start with, I am not going to get depressed. Even if this rainy day is the first of four or five rainy days we have been told to expect, the gloom isn’t going to push me into depression. I tend not to react to the weather that way—I get depressed for other reasons, which have to do with my reaction to life events, not the weather.

Nor am I going to get frustrated about the things I can’t do because of the rain gloom of April. I don’t much like mowing lawns to start with and so looking out on an expanse of brown, drippy grass is somewhat satisfying to me—I don’t have to mow it. True, I could be out raking the leftover leaves and picking up branches but I don’t like that even on sunny days so not being able to do it now is also somewhat gratifying.

Just to make things a little more complex, I actually enjoy a nice rainy day. I like being able to look up from the keyboard and watch the rain through the drop spattered window. I am sure some of that come from our time in Kenya where rain is seen as a blessing. But even without that, there is something relaxing to me about watching the rain. I don’t get the full impact these days because we live in a well insulated house so I can’t actually hear the rain—but I will make that sacrifice to feel warm as I watch the silent rain. I may not be as enamoured with the rain at the end of this four or five day rainy season but for now, I can type, look out the window and enjoy the rain.

It isn’t like the rain is going to actually change any of my plans. We don’t live in a flood plain and the roads I need to travel today are all well above the highest water marks. The house has a newly shingled roof so it won’t leak—and if by some chance it does leak, the roofers have to come back to fix it under their warranty terms. Between my house, the car, my rain gear and the places where I go, I am not going to get particularly wet no matter how far I go. And, by the way, I kind of like driving on rainy days as well.

Rainy days do upset my wife’s dog—he doesn’t actually like getting wet and so avoids going out as long as he can. When I am in charge of the door, that is an added benefit for me—the dog doesn’t keep coming to me to go out and then have to be let back in all that much.

So, in the end, I am going to enjoy the day. I am warm and comfortable. I don’t have to get up for the dog a dozen times. I have stuff to do and places to go. So, let it rain. The dog might be less content than he would be on a sunny day but I am comfortable, not depressed and have lots of stuff to do. Eventually, the rain will stop, the grass will grow, the leaves will come out and the sun will shine. I will enjoy all those blessings—well, maybe not the grass growing once I have to start mowing but I will enjoy most of those blessings.

But for today, I will enjoy the blessings of a cold, windy, rainy day in April in Nova Scotia.

May the peace of God be with you.

SOMETIMES I WONDER…

I am a pastor of small congregations. That has been the basic description of what I do pretty much for the whole of my ministry career. I like to jazz it up a bit by including the fact that I have also taught at our denominational seminary, spent some time as a chaplain at a younger offenders facility and even been a missionary in Kenya. But the truth is that all these have been a minor part of my career—most of the time, I have been the pastor of small, often struggling congregations.

I was once pastor of a congregation that had a membership of 200+, which sounds really great but before I arrived, the actual attendance had shrunk to perhaps 25. A sanctuary that will seat 250 or more people looks pretty depressing with 25 in attendance, to say nothing about the heavy financial burden it places on the congregation.

The decision to be a pastor of small congregations isn’t one that I consciously made at some point but it is one that I had a part in. There were times along the way when some larger congregations were interested in calling me as pastor but each time, my sense was that God wasn’t leading me in that direction—there was more I was supposed to accomplish where I was at the time.

It would be nice to report that every small congregation that I served as a pastor eventually grew into a large, thriving congregation. There was growth in all of them—we generally had baptismal services each year and people transferred their membership in and new people started attending. But most times, at the end of my ministry, the attendance numbers weren’t all that different from the numbers at the beginning of my ministry. The actual people were often different but the numbers were pretty much the same. People died, moved away, got sick—all of which meant that the congregations grew at pretty much the same rate they shrank.

Given that I am already over the “official” retirement age, I don’t actually foresee much chance that I will ever be the pastor of a large congregation, which is okay with me because my limited experience with them suggests that I don’t feel all that comfortable in large congregations as a worshipper, let alone as a pastor.

So recently, one of my personal questions has focused on the overall value of what I have been doing for the past 40+ years. I wonder if being the pastor of a handful of small congregations has been a worthwhile way to invest my energy and time and professional effort. I think I have two answers.

The first is theological and sounds somewhat sanctimonious. It has obviously been worthwhile because I was doing what God wanted me to do where he wanted me to do it. I know that sounds a bit too pietistic but I do believe that and there are days when that I find that a very significant part of my understanding of myself and my career.

The second is more practical. What I have done has been worthwhile because of the people I have worked with over the years, the relationships that have developed, the faiths that have been strengthened. Working with small congregations gives me the luxury of time to actually work with people in some very significant ways.

I have had time to help people discover and develop their spiritual gifts. I have had time to help people work through their deep spiritual fears and questions. I have had time to counsel the hurting; encourage the searching; enable the struggling. I have been able to help people find answers to hard questions. And along the way, I have been able to laugh a lot with them, cry almost as much, drink a lot of coffee, eat a lot of great food.

And in the process, we have all grown. We have grown in our understanding of the Gospel and we have especially grown in our understanding and practice of Christian community. As we worship, study, eat, share, pray, work and do whatever we do in our small congregations, we experience the wonder of God at work in our midst.

And so while I sometimes wonder if I have followed the best course, most of the time, I don’t—I more often give God thanks for the opportunity to serve small congregations.

May the peace of God be with you

PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

I realized recently that there is a serious source of anxiety in my job. I am a pastor working with churches in an area where I have lived for around 40 years. Many of the people who form the congregations I serve are more than just parishioners—they are friends. The relationships go back many years and involve many shared experiences that have tied us together over the years. And because of the fact that I have been here so long, I know many in the communities who don’t attend our church—or any church—equally as well.

I had some inkling of the anxiety but tended to ignore it until this week. I had a call about a death—not an unusual call for a pastor in an area with one of the highest rates of over 65s in Canada. The call involved someone I knew, not a church member but with strong family connections in the church, someone I knew because of the family connections. Shortly after that call, I got another about another death. Again, this was a person I knew well, who had at one point been heavily involved in churches I pastored but who had moved and while still in the immediate area, wasn’t as much a part of any churches I pastor.

The anxiety developed as I realized that both these people were about my age, I knew them fairly well and in the end, while they were not parishioners, they were friends. My thinking process, always a bit overactive, very quickly began making lists of people in the same category: people I know who are like me getting on in years. Unlike me, some of them have developed some fairly significant health problems and we are all at the stage in life where the unexpected can pop up at any time.

For me, the anxiety develops because I realize that professionally and personally, when bad things happen, I am the person who is going to get called. Professionally, I am the pastor to a significant number of people, some of whom attend worship and some of whom don’t. Personally, I am the only pastor many people know—they don’t actually know me as their pastor but they know I am a pastor and that means they will call when life gets tough.

So, I do a lot of funerals for friends and family of friends. Doing funerals is a basic part of my job—it is so basic a part of the job that early in my ministry, I spent a lot of time looking at the death and funeral process so that I could do the best job possible. I like to think that when it comes to the grief and funeral process, I know what I am doing.

But there is a major difference doing what I do for someone I have known and liked and spent time with in a variety of ways over the years. I am grieving myself—maybe not as much as the family but I have still lost someone whose death is creating a dark hole in my life. My work and my life come together creating a difficult task—I need to use all my training and professional ability to help people process a death that I am also processing at the same time.

My anxiety isn’t about that, or at least, it isn’t primarily about that. I can do that—there is a certain amount of this cross over in every funeral. I have learned how to help people as a pastor and process my own grief at the same time in a way that enables both to happen. It hasn’t been and isn’t always easy but I can do it.

The anxiety comes from the fact that I realize I am facing a lot more of this cross over. People I have known for 40 years or more are not well. Some will get better. Some will remain chronic. And some will die. And I will get called in on many of these life realities. I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff. I especially don’t want to deal with it when it involves people I have known for so long and whose lives have been intertwined with mine in so many ways.

But that is my job and my calling and so I will deal with it—but I will depend on the presence and power of God in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.