A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

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.

SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE

Recently, some of my electronics have been giving me indications that they are thinking about retirement. Since some of them are getting really old for electronics, I have been observing their symptoms with some mixed feelings. I appreciate my electronics and use them heavily—while I am not totally dependent on them, I would be very reluctant to go back to pre-electronic days. But at the same time, new electronics are new—better specs, new tricks, updated everything.

So, given the realities of my aging electronics, I began researching the possibilities for replacements. I began with my tablet, which I use heavily in my ministry—I don’t do paper anymore, carrying everything on the tablet. The research thrilled my tech loving heart. Eventually, I discovered two real possibilities: one looked good and was much cheaper than the second choice. However, before I bought, I checked reviews and discovered that it didn’t perform as well as the more expensive one, which went to the head of the list.

I was ready. I was in the store, looking at samples and lifting and touching—I wasn’t actually salivating, at least not physically. I was almost ready to pull out the charge card and make the purchase when something told me not to buy right then. Since we had other stuff to do, I moved on, figuring I would be back soon to get my new tablet.

What I didn’t know then was that the something telling me not to buy was actually a spiritual message. God was speaking. Now, before you stop reading, let me explain. I think that faith needs to touch every area of life, which means that God should be a part of every decision, including what electronics I buy. I know that, I tell people that, I preach that. But at some point, my love of electronics sort of shoved that insight into the background. After all, what does faith have to do with tablets? The only tablets mentioned in the Bible are made of stone and had zero battery life.

But as I thought about buying a new, expensive tablet that would do everything I wanted and more, I believe that God was also at work, seeking to convince me that there were other options that just might be more pleasing to him. I am still not sure whether God is deeply concerned about which tablet I buy or if he is more concerned with my being willing to involve him in the process, although based on my past experience, I am pretty sure that his first concern is that I involve him in the process and then he can help me make a better decision.

Is buying a new tablet a faith decision? Well, according to many sermons I have preached, everything has a faith connection so my decision about a tablet should involve a faith component. I think that was the message God was sending in the electronics store when I just couldn’t quite buy the tablet my research—and desire—told me was the best choice for me.

Since then, I have gone back to the research process—but I have also specifically involved God in the process. I am not expecting God to become a celebrity spokesperson (spokesbeing?) for any particular brand of tablet. Nor am I expecting him to give me a list of divinely approved tablets. But I am expecting that if I open the process to God, he will do what he always does when we bring him into the process. He will help us evaluate and examine and think through things in a different way.

In this particular case, it seems that buying a new, expensive tablet probably isn’t the best decision. My desires for new tech got in the way of some realities that involving God helped me see. The new, expensive tablet would look really great—but in truth, it is more than I really need. As I thought and allowed God some part in the process, I began to see other options, other ways that would work even better and be more realistic. I will eventually end up with some new tech, some repaired tech and more of what I need.

This has been an interesting process—who knew that buying tech could be a spiritual exercise? Well, actually I did—but forgot to remind myself of what I keep telling others.

May the peace of God be with you.

EASY ANSWERS

There is an old joke among some clergy that the right answer to any question asked in Bible study or Sunday School is Jesus or God—and if the person answering has a bit of theological insight and a slightly argumentative attitude, the case can be made that either answer is the right one. I ran into a version of this the other day.

Through a somewhat convoluted route, I discovered that the answer to my recent feelings of fatigue was to take more time to pray and come closer to God. Now, on some levels, that particular answer makes some sense. I am a pastor and things get busy and it is easy to let my devotional life slip—prayer gets done only when I have to for ministry purposes; Bible reading gets done just for preparation of something for the church; quiet time becomes a prelude to a nap. All of us and perhaps especially pastors could probably use some more personal devotional time, which makes the answer sort of right.

But in this case, the sort of answer really isn’t the right answer. I was not fatigued because my relationship with God was suffering. If anything, my relationship with God was suffering because I was fatigued. I was feeling fatigue because the churches that close for the winter had started up for the year and during the first two weeks of that, I had three funerals, all of people I had known and liked for many years. The combination of start up and funerals and extra Easter worship services made me tired.

For me, the danger of quick, easy and automatic answers is that they generally contain enough truth to sound good, especially if we mentally squint while delivering the answer. But such answers generally reveal a lack of understanding of the reality of the question or context or specifics. In my various forays into the field of training pastors, I have discovered that we pastors have a terrible tendency to trot out the simple and quick answer rather than put on the time to really discover what is going on and what is really needed.

I understand that pastors (and other spiritual leaders) are busy. I have been a pastor for more years than I want to count and can only remember a few times in all those years when I didn’t have a dozen things demanding attention—and those times were during the intervals of unemployment between churches. The rest of the time, well, the rest of the time, finishing a sermon means needing to start another one; ending a Bible study topic means beginning research on the next one; leaving the funeral means wondering if there is time to visit at the hospital before the coming meeting; going on vacation means working extra before and after so as not to get too far behind.

But being busy isn’t an excuse for finding and passing out all the simplistic and easy answers that we in ministry are sometimes tempted to do. Real ministry requires that we focus on real people with real needs and help them work towards real solutions. The model for this process comes, interestingly enough, from the traditional Sunday School answer: Jesus (or God, if you want to be argumentative).

As I read through the Gospels, I discover that Jesus didn’t have general, simple, easy answers. He provided people with answers and solutions that reflected the realities of their particular situation. Take the stories of two rich men, for example. The rich young ruler and Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-9) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18.18-22) have a lot in common: they both have money, both are obviously searching for something; both are interested in Jesus. Yet Jesus has different solutions for them. One gets a visit and the other gets a clear and difficult choice. Jesus responds to the specific people and their specific needs.

We pastors are not Jesus and so don’t generally have the ability to instantly understand the fullness of a person like Jesus did. But we are pastors and our calling does generally include the gifts necessary to enable us to listen to people and discover the reality of their complex situation and the wisdom to allow the Spirit to work through us as we are used to help them discover their unique answer to their unique issues.

Anyway, I am going to take a nap—that will deal with my fatigue better than anything right now.

May the peace of God be with you.

JESUS’ CHOICES

For my Easter sermons this year, I decided to spend some serious time looking at Jesus and the Easter story. Because of my theological predispositions, I don’t see the Easter story as a predetermined process that made all those involved act and respond in a certain way. I have long espoused a theological view that allows freedom—we have real choices and what we chose has real consequences.

When I bring that theological slant to the study of the Easter story, I realize that the freedom that God has given to us is also given to Jesus. He was, after all, fully human and like all of us, he had choices before him. I will quickly add here that Jesus was also fully God. Both must be a part of our thinking about Jesus.

But for this Easter season, I have been thinking about and preaching about the process from the perspective of the human Jesus. And from that perspective, the story seems to be to be very clear that at each step along the way to the Cross, Jesus had to decide to go to the cross. He had other options. Certainly, the perfect option was to go to the cross. But along the way, there were other options presented that might not have been perfect but which would have been okay.

For example, on Palm Sunday, Jesus is acclaimed by the crowds entering the city for the Passover. This huge crowd was stirred up by their religious passion for the Passover. They were excited by the stories they had heard about Jesus. They were also angry and frustrated with the continued Roman occupation of their country. It wouldn’t have taken much to turn that crowd into an army of liberation.

Jesus could have used them to liberate the nation and the temple. Sure, a lot of them might die—but there were enough that the vastly outnumbered Roman legions would simple get worn out trying to kill them all. Add to that the fact that Jesus isn’t just limited to human means—he could heal and even resurrect people.

While we might want to dismiss this as the fantasy of a preacher tired of the traditional approach to Easter, we do, I think, need to realize that this was an option open to Jesus. He could have done it, just as he could have given in to the temptations of satan early in his ministry or walked away from the whole thing in the garden before the arrest. He keeps choosing the painful and difficult.

For me, understanding that Jesus had choices makes the whole story different and more powerful and significant. The cross was necessary—but not inevitable. Jesus chose the cross—not just once but repeatedly. Knowing the pain and suffering that would come from the whole process, he still chose to follow that path.

And for me, this reality sheds all sorts of exciting light on the story. When Jesus says he loves us, we can take that to the bank because his love gets shown every time he makes a difficult choice that brings the cross closer. His is an active, powerful, dynamic love that looks at the benefit to us in the fact of the suffering he will face and somehow always manages to find the courage and determination to make the choice that benefits us the most.

I could perhaps write that I don’t know how he could do that but that wouldn’t actually be true. I know how he found the strength to make those painful choices. The human/divine being who was Jesus makes the difficult human choices in the presence and power of the divine. He has powerful help.

And the story gets even better because the risen living Christ offers to us the same help. When we accept the love of Christ shown in the cross and resurrection, we receive not only reconciliation with God but the active and real presence of God in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We have access to the same divine help that enabled Jesus to make the difficult choices.

Now, obviously, the divine isn’t integrated into our lives like it was with Jesus. But we as believers have access to the divine power and guidance and help that enabled Jesus to make the hard choices.

May the peace of God be with you.

NEW PROPHETS

I have always been fascinated by the Biblical prophets, particularly the ones who lived and ministered during the middle section of the Old Testament times. Most of the named prophets at that time were men, although there are hints of women being involved at times as well. They tended to be somewhat on the edge of the cultural norms of their day, which is an important point to remember.

We in the faith, and perhaps especially those of us in ministry, have a tendency to see the prophets are important and respected and visionary individuals who words are important and timeless. But the truth is that most of the prophets in the Old Testament, especially those around the time of the collapse of the north and south kingdoms were not at the centre of things. They were not given much attention—and what attention they were given tended to be negative.

Their messages were important and essential but didn’t really register with their contemporaries. We look back at their words and messages and we discover the deep and powerful truths they were speaking and we respect and appreciate and honour them and their words—but in their day, they were ridiculed, arrested, exiled. Being a prophet was not exactly a sought after occupation during many periods in Old Testament history.

Before I continue, it occurs to me that I need to define prophecy just to make sure we are all thinking the same way. In the Bible, prophecy is used to describe the activity of people delivering specific messages from God to individuals, groups or nations. While prophecy sometimes involves some predictions and comments about the future, the key essential of prophecy is that it is a specific message from God to a specific target audience.

All of that makes me wonder. I wonder if there are prophets at work today. Well, actually, I am pretty sure there are prophets at work today. My wondering is more about where we find them. I am aware that there have been and are lots of Christian leaders who have been hailed as prophets by some group or another. And some of them may actually have been prophets. But what bothers me is that often, the decision to name someone a prophet is based on the fact that they speak a message that we like to hear.

We acclaim them prophets because their words and messages reinforce our ideas. We like what we hear and since we like it, we accept the words as coming directly from God, which makes the speaker a prophet. And while there is nothing wrong with liking what someone has to say, I do wonder if it is really prophecy.

Where is the tension, the rebuke, the correction that was such a part of Biblical prophecy? Why does God feel a need to send people to reinforce what we are already comfortable with? Where, for that matter, is the testing that is supposed to be in place to see if the message is really from God?

Maybe, instead of looking for modern prophets in the best seller section, we need to look at the edges of the faith, seeking out the people whose messages are ignored and whose words go against our flow. I am not suggesting that being on the edge makes something true—but based on the Biblical examples, being on the edge doesn’t necessarily make it false either. Popularity is not a necessary part of the definition of prophecy. In fact, in the Bible, God tends to send prophets to give corrective messages. He uses them to deliver words that go against the popular and accepted and pleasing—that is why so many of the Old Testament prophets has such a hard time.

So, where are the prophets of today? Maybe some of them are on the best seller lists, pastoring the mega churches, leading the newest church growth fad. But maybe some of them are on the edges, ignored and disrespected. Maybe the popular is prophecy—but then again, maybe the message God is trying to get across is unpopular and uncomfortable and we don’t actually want to hear it.

How do we decide? Well, a good start might be to listen more to both the popular and the unpopular and ask God to help is decide which is the real prophecy.

May the peace of God be with you.

GETTING BETTER!?

My list of hoped for gifts always includes gift certificates for the various ebook sources I regularly buy from. Every gift event throughout the year gives me a few certificates, which I ration out over the course of the year, picking and choosing books that look interesting. I recently finished one of the resulting purchases. I didn’t particularly agree with everything the writer said, which is always a plus for me—why bother to read something I already agree with?

One of the themes of this book was that humanity is getting better and better. As a species we are maturing and developing and becoming….The writer couldn’t actually say what we were becoming—but I will get to that in a bit.

In many ways, he was repeating an idea in vogue near the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Now, I am old but not that old but some of the reading I have done so much of over the years supplied this information. At that point, various writers were assuring us that humanity was getting better and better all the time. Those writers did have a goal and a direction in mind. Many of them were writing from a Christian perspective and were sure that humanity was becoming more and more what God planned us to be.

The recent book I read wasn’t written from a Christian perspective and so had more trouble saying where we were going as a species. Since he was approaching everything from an evolutionary perspective, the best he could suggest was that we were evolving well.

I find it interesting that this idea of the perfectibility of humanity is still being trotted out. The evidence is stacked seriously against this thesis. The Christian run at the theory in the late 1800s and early 1900s was pretty much destroyed by the horror of World War I. Any remnants and holdouts were wiped out by World War II. The present restatement of the theory sounds good but really only works if you squint so that you don’t see the evil that stalks humanity today.

If you can overlook the modern day racial, cultural, economic, sectarian, political and other unnamed divisions that are hardening into life choices; if you can pretend that people seem to believe that killing a bunch of people is a legitimate way to settle differences or make a political point; if you can tune out all the anonymous hatred that social media enables and supports; if we can ignore the abuse, disrespect and comidification of the weak by the strong—if you can do all that and ignore a bunch more stuff, well then humanity is getting much better.

I can’t ignore the evil and consequent suffering. I would like to be able to think that humanity is getting more and more Christian. I would be willing to settle for humanity to be evolving into some vague better reality. But the evidence is just too powerful for me to accept such ideas. There are certainly individuals and groups who manage to overcome humanity’s drive to cause pain. There are times and places where we humans actually treat each other well.

But on the whole, the idea of a perfect humanity will always crash on the rocks of the inherent evil that plagues our species. I approach this issue as a Christian and we have a theological explanation for the problem—we are sinful. Essentially, we are self-centered and want the world to revolve around us. If you don’t want to approach the problem from a faith perspective, we might suggest that there is something flaw in our generic make up that drives us to make choices that have negative consequences for ourselves and others, choices which can and do threaten the existence not just of our species but of many others as well.

I will stick to the Christian line of thought—it is what I know and what I believe. As Christians, we believe that there is an answer to the problem of evil, especially the evil that comes about as a result of the selfishness of humanity. The answer isn’t found within us, nor is it found in the possibility of a random genetic mutation that makes us better. We need to surrender our selfishness to God because only by getting out of ourselves can we become more than we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN!

I have been studying the communicating process for a long time and have read—and written—a lot of stuff trying to understand the whole complicated process. Over that time, I have learned a couple of things. The first is that with all the possible problems and impediments, it sometimes amazes me that we can communicate at all.

The second thing I have learned is that most of the time, the major disruption in the communication process comes about because of a significant lack of one vital part of the process. Stripped of all the verbiage and explanations and descriptions, communication involves three elements: a message, a sender and a receiver. Two of those elements are abundant and one is scarce.

There are tons of senders—everyone and everything had a message to send. Our world is filled with senders. We use sound and sight and touch and smell and who knows what ways to send our message. According to relatively new scientific discoveries, even plants are sending messages to other plants. Senders are not in short supply. And that means that messages are also not in short supply, which makes sense. If there are an infinite number of senders, there must be an even larger number of messages, unless each sender limits itself to one message, which is unlikely.

So we have no shortage of senders and consequently no shortage of message, which suggests that the breakdown comes with the third required element, the receivers. My experience as a pastor and counsellor and my research supports this—message receivers are in short supply.

Here is a very common pastoral counselling scenario. I am listening to someone tell me about their problems. The problems can be trivial or moderate or severe. They talk about their problem and their frustrations and their struggles. And, in a great many cases, somewhere in their message, they will make the comment that one of the problems is that nobody will listen to them. Leaving aside the reality that I am actually listening to them, I can understand their message.

People don’t like to receive messages—we don’t actually like listening. We might listen to a bit but mostly, we want people to stop sending messages so that we can continue sending our messages. We especially don’t want to hear messages that are going to inconvenience us, bother us, ask something of us, upset our comfortable world view or harm our ability to get our message out. So, we live in a culture which has a surfeit of senders, an overdose of messages and very few receivers, which probably explains why our culture also has sky high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other forms of social and emotional dysfunction.

When nobody listens, nobody is heard. When nobody receives, the communication process is broken. We have senders sending to emptiness and messages going nowhere. But if the sender’s message isn’t received, everyone involved suffers and the message is lost.

I wish I could say that there is a simple solution to this problem. But there really isn’t. Listening is hard work. We seem to be predisposed to sending and reluctant to receive. As a theologian, I would suggest that that is a result of our essential self-centeredness, what the Bible calls sin. We all want to be the most important being in all creation, the being whose messages are received by everyone else without our having to be bothered by receiving messages from beings who aren’t us.

Communication breaks down because we are selfish, often too selfish to stop broadcasting our message long enough to receive someone else’s message. I once read a description of conversation that suggested that a conversation consists of me thinking of what I am going to say once you stop talking.

It is possible to learn how to receive messages from others—it takes hard work, as many former students of mine will attest. But the hardest part of learning to listen is the willingness to stop being so selfish. In order to really receive a message from someone else, we need to actually focus on them, not on ourselves. Once we make that commitment, the rest is easy. But as long as we focus on ourselves, we will ignore the message, distort the message, misunderstand the message—we will not receive it.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING A PASTOR

I am a pastor—to be honest, it is the only job I have ever had. I have done a few other things but they have all been related to being a pastor. One of the things that means is that I know really well the traditional joke about pastors that everyone loves to make. I tell someone I am a pastor and the immediate response is something along to lines of “That means you work for an hour a week!”

Over the years, I have developed several responses to that tired joke:

• I have two worship services a week so I actually work two hours a week
• Actually, since everyone sleeps during worship, I sleep then as well
• Its even better than that—since nobody listens, I have been using the same sermon for 40 years.
• I had a wedding and a funeral this week as well so I had to work three hours—I am worn out.

Once the joke is out of the way, we can get on with whatever it was that we were supposed to doing in the first place. While I am a bit tired of the joke, I can understand where it comes from. I think there are two sources that lead to the joke and the assumption that pastors really don’t work.

The first reason is that most of my work isn’t seen by many people. People see me leading worship or conducting funerals or some other public activity but they don’t see the hours of preparation or the time spend with a grieving family or the counselling sessions or the even the amount of time spent driving from one pastoral activity to another. One person might know that I conducted a funeral and a worship service and counselled them and their family during the week but others simply don’t know everything I do—and given the realities of life, they probably don’t actually give much thought into how I fill in the unseen hours.

The other reason people think we pastors don’t do much is not as pleasant to think about. There are pastors who don’t actually do all that much. There aren’t many of them but they do exist and their lack of activity is real and tends to affect the rest of us. Much of ministry is self-directed and a very few take advantage of that, a process that has become even easier these days when you can easily down load a sermon from somewhere on the internet.

I can’t do much about the small minority whose lack of actual work gives the rest of us a black eye. Even when I have been teaching pastors, I have been aware that there would be a few who would turn their lackadaisical, as little as possible student careers into a very lazy ministry career. Such pastors have made one contribution to the overall ministry we engage in—they provided the grounds for the very old joke I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The rest of us, well we work. Generally, we work too much, stress too much, bite off more than we can comfortably chew in one week. We are generally on the knife edge of burnout, secretly praying for a snow day (even in July), juggling a schedule that is always too full and wondering how we can get everything done with only seven days a week.

While there are those few who would benefit from doing some actual work, most of us in ministry need to learn how not to work—as a whole, we clergy are pretty terrible at setting and keeping limits. No matter how well the limits are set out, there is always that call that we need to respond to immediately—that is, after all, what we do.

I am a pastor. I actually work much more than an hour a week. Since I am part time, I actually am supposed to work 32 hours a week—and some weeks, I actually reach that number of hours. Unfortunately, most weeks, I reach it and pass it and still have a pile of stuff that needs to be done.

However, God is gracious and loving and through the Holy Spirit, he continues to work with me, helping me know and even occasionally keep the limits that allow me to minister well to the church and myself.

May the peace of God be with you.