THE OLD CHURCH BUILDING

            The area where I live is one of the oldest settled areas in Canada.  Before the arrival of European settlers, there was a thriving Native population.  European settlers arrived here in 1605 and have been here every since.  As might be expected, we have a great many old buildings.  The coffee shop where I treat myself to the world’s greatest cinnamon buns, for example, is housed in a building put up in 1747, although the coffee and cinnamon buns are much newer.

Among the old buildings are several unused church buildings of various denominations.  Some of them belong to denominations that have no problem  dealing with old, unused  church buildings.  The bishop, presbytery, committee or some other outside organization signs a paper and the building disappears or is sold and become an antique shop or funky house.  But other denominations, like the one I belong to, have serious problems because control of the building belongs to the membership.

But one of the interesting realities is that when the membership passes, control of the building seems to vest itself in a variety of people who want it kept for a variety of reasons.  Some have fond memories of family members who attended there.  Some are deeply appreciative of the architecture of the building.  Some swoon over the historical connections of the building.  Some see it as a possible money making opportunity–a wedding chapel or something like that.

Everyone wants it preserved and repaired and painted.  But very few want to pay the money and put in the time to make all that happen–and the few who do soon discover that having an unused church building to look after can be a major source of frustration, aggravation, stress and anger.

Interestingly enough, very few people see the building for what it really is.  An unused church building is the last sign physical of a once vibrant worshipping community.  It speaks of the faith that brought people to God and each other; a faith that enabled relatively poor people to build a building to house their congregation; a faith that sustained that worshipping community for many years–but also a faith that faded as its membership aged and moved and died.

If the congregation was faithful and worked at being the church, the deteriorating building isn’t the last sign of the former congregation’s life, nor is it even the best symbol of the legacy of the congregation.  To really know the value of a congregation, it is necessary to look at the lives touched by the congregation who used to worship in that building.  How many were helped through the valley of the shadow of death?  How many discovered the wonder of God’s grace?  How many found a cup of cold water when they needed it?  How many found their lives more abundant because of that congregation?

Unfortunately, answers to questions like that are sometimes hard to find.  People move away; communities shrink and fade away; memories grow dim.  The people who were touched by that congregation may not be anywhere near the old building–and the building probably isn’t anywhere near as important to them as the people who once made up the congregation.

I like old church buildings–but then, I like all church buildings, from the huge cathedral to the mud and wattle hut in the Kenyan bush.  But I like the congregations that inhabit the buildings even more.  I might appreciate the furtively scratched ship drawings hidden on the back pew in the balcony of an old unused church building but I appreciate even more the legacy of the congregation that used to inhabit that building.  Their worship might have bored at least one budding artist, but it also touched lives and made a difference.

The old building might have historical, architectural, cultural and emotional significance but the real story and real value of the building is written in the lives of those who built it and worshipped in it and in the lives touched by that group of people.  What happens to the building after the worshipping community ceases to exist?  Let the historians and the architects and the culture buffs and the nostalgia surfers figure it out.  I am going to take some pictures, thank God for the church that used to be there and worship somewhere else, where God is using another group of believers to touch lives.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE WIRES

In the last post, I wrote that there were two things contemplating the wires I tend not to see actually showed me, one of which was my selective blindness.  The other thing the wires reminded me of is the depth and breadth of connections I have with the rest of humanity.

As an introvert with very strong independent tendencies, it is easy for me to downplay and ignore the connections I have with others.  I am quite comfortable most of the time doing my thing and if I occasionally go for extended periods of time not interacting with others, well, that is okay.  But even an independent introvert like me has more need of others that I sometimes let myself be aware of.

And the wires coming in to the house are a visible reminder of those connections.  If my introverted self wants to slump down in the recliner watching TV and ignore people, the cable wire reminds me that I can’t actually do that without some significant interactions with real people.  These people connect the signal to my TV.  They repair the wires that carry the signal.  They run the switching equipment that brings the signals to the wires.  They administer the business that provides the service.  They make the programs that come through the wires.  They do all that just so I can sit in front the TV and ignore people.  And they can do that because I and many others interact with them.  Paying the monthly cable bill is an interaction, one that involves a lot of other people at banks and so on.

The poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island”.  Putting aside his non-politically correct language as an artifact of a different era, he is making a powerful point.  No matter what we would like to think, we humans are intricately and intimately related in more ways that we can imagine.  The connections are beneficial–but they are also two way.  The cable company will happily provide me with diversions, provided I provide them with a monthly income. The power company will likewise give me power to run my various toys and heat the house, provided I interact with them financially.

The wires connect me to the world so that I can supervise a food security project being done by a Congolese pastor as part of the requirements for the course he is taking at a Kenyan theology school–and I can do it from the comfort of one of my two work chairs in my living room in Canada.

If I am drinking a cup of coffee while I am doing it, I am connected with the whole coffee production line, which means that in the end, some of the money I paid for the coffee ends up helping some farmer somewhere buy food or pay school fees. And maybe that does involve me in the debate over whether that farmer actually gets enough for his time and effort to provide me with my coffee.

After Cain killed his brother Abel and was trying to hide the crime from God, he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4.9).  He would desperately like the answer to be “no”–but it can’t be no.  We humans are so interlinked and intertwined that a sneeze in Canada affects farmers in Kenya. All human need becomes the responsibility of all humanity–we are all connected in some way and have mutual responsibilities and benefits.  Often, we are aware of some of the connection and responsibilities but would like to ignore others.  I want to ignore the panhandlers on the streets when I am in the city.  But ultimately, I have a connection to them–maybe because a former student is using some of the stuff I taught to develop a ministry to the street people whom I am trying to ignore.  Or maybe that person with their hand out is the grandchild of one of the people who occasionally comes to one of the worship services I lead.  Or maybe the connection is that God wants me to intervene directly in that life.

I will probably continue to ignore the wires coming into the house, at least until one of them doesn’t work or I get desperate for something to write.  But I do need to remember the connections they represent and the wider connections they symbolize.  Even at my most introverted and independent, I have benefits and responsibilities connecting me with the rest of humanity.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM A…

I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation.  I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community.  That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another.  It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.

Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better.  We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist.  We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism.  And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base.  And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.

So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.

Except, we really weren’t that different.  Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week.  We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.

And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses.  The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways.  The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life.  The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church.  Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.

Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us.  Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other.  We had to be right and they had to be wrong.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate.  I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.

I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith.  I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad.  And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups.  I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.

And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light.  When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great.  So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANOTHER MEETING

A few years ago, I got is a bit of trouble over a joke.  It seems to me that ministry sometimes consists of going to meetings and at one meeting, I asked the participants how they could know for sure if they were in heaven or hell in the afterlife.  I thought the answer was simple:  if you were at a meeting in the afterlife, you were obviously in hell, not heaven.  I thought it was funny but others at the meeting didn’t see it the same way, but that is a story for another time.

Meetings are a fact of life in ministry.  And because I serve two separate collections of churches, I end up at more meetings.  As a result of these two different ministry settings, for example, I am currently part of two different ecumenical gatherings.  One is an actual council of churches and the other is a gathering of clergy.  Interestingly enough, they both do pretty much the same type of things.  Both meet monthly and both spend time getting to know each other better and working together on a variety of things that help the church as a whole.  And while I don’t much like meetings, the idea of churches and their leaders working together makes up for the necessity of attending meetings, most of the time anyway.

When I attend such meetings, I appreciate the opportunity to meet with other believers from other traditions.  I sometimes get frustrated when I recognize the limitations we face as different denominations but more often, I am more often trying to deal with the differences in personality that always complicate meetings.

Our gatherings do not represent the full Christian presence in our communities.  There are some Christian groups that choose not to take part and depending on the leadership at any particular time, some of the member groups may not have a very active participation.  But in the end, we meet together, we talk together, we plan together, we laugh together, and we support each other in difficult times.  We get to know each other’s individual and ecclesiastical differences.  We learn who does what well and who doesn’t do what well.  We discover who can offer which resources to the work we can do.

And in the process of meeting together, we are doing far more than we sometimes realize. As well as the planning and sharing and organizing that we do, we are also presenting our communities with a vision of the church as it is meant to be.  We aren’t planning to merge all our churches and become one.  But we are practising and showing an essential and basic unity of the faith that cuts across our denominational differences.  We are showing our communities that we might worship in different ways in different buildings at different times but we are all actually worshipping the same God because of the same Christ in the power of the same Holy Spirit.

We are telling our communities that no matter which building we worship in and no matter which style we worship in, we are in agreement and we are all heading in the same direction and we aren’t competing with each other.  And so when I have prayer with the Anglican lady who I see in the hospital during my visit with my Baptist people, she and her pastor know that I am not trying to steal anyone–and the community knows that we are all working for the same God.

And this is important because the more fragmented and fighting the church is, the weaker our witness.  If we who follow Christ in our different ways cannot get along, how can the world expect much of the faith we proclaim?  Our bickering and competition serve to give outsiders a reason for not considering faith–we undercut our mission and make to task of the Holy Spirit much harder when we aren’t willing to work together.

And so, I will attend the meetings–not because I love meetings.  I am still convinced that one of the joys of heaven will be the absence of meetings.  But I will continue to meet with fellow believers because that which we share is much deeper and much more significant than that which separates us.  We are joined together by our faith  now and forever.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO ARE WE?

One of my Bible study groups just started a new topic.  Last year, we had planned to do a study of basic Christian doctrine and follow that up with a study of our specific denomination.  We got a bit sidetracked and spent several months on a study of the Holy Spirit but in both the Bible study groups I work with, getting sidetracked is one of the most exciting parts of the study process.

But this particular diversion meant that instead of going right from a study of Christian theology into a more specific denominational approach, we had a gap.  I had a concern that the gap would mean that we would lose sight of the connection between the two studies.  My original plan was to move right from one to the other, which would help us see ourselves as believers in a specific context within the wider church.

I think our study group will be able to make the connection–but just to make sure, I dug out and passed around a 2 page summary of Christian history that I developed years ago with help from a variety of sources.  But on a wider scale, one of my concerns throughout ministry has been that we believers have a terrible tendency to forget the big picture.

Because I belong to the Baptist segment of the church, I have a tendency to think that the rest of the church is somehow off course.  There are also people within this tradition who are absolutely convinced that anyone who isn’t a Baptist really isn’t part of the Church.  If such thinking were confined only to the Baptist segment, that would be a serious but somewhat manageable problem–the rest of the Church could ignore our thinking and get on with its business.

Unfortunately, the inability to contextualize denominational stances within the wider church seems to be one of the defining characteristics of  the church as a whole, at least in North America.  You would think that at a time when the whole Christian faith is experiencing a decline in the West, we would be more willing to pull together–but instead of pulling together, we are often doing our best to put each other down.

We even spend more time than any of us want to admit trying to convince believers from other segments of the Church to join our segment.  While some might call this evangelism, it really isn’t.  We are just rearranging the seating plan, not reaching into the darkness to rescue people as we are called to do.

But the reality is that we believers need to deal more effectively with all the other branches of the faith that we do at this point.  It is simply wrong to assume that everyone outside our particular brand is either wrong or needs to switch.  Christianity isn’t a competition to see who can capture the most from the “other side”.  The Church is a wide and diverse gathering of believers whose actual expression of the faith takes many forms and many styles, none of which is perfectly right or perfectly wrong.

Jesus died and rose to life for the sake of all humanity and instituted the Church as a place where those who follow him can grow and develop and fellowship and enable each other.  And he died and rose to life and instituted the church for Baptists and Catholics and the Africa Brotherhood Church and Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and all the rest.  I may not feel particularly comfortable in Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and I am much too happy being a married pastor to consider being a Catholic priest but I am joined to Brother Joe and the Roman Catholic church is deep, powerful and eternal ways that I need to recognize and strengthen.

The things that tie me to the rest of the church are important and basic.  The things that differentiate me from the rest of the church are also important–but nowhere near as important as the love and grace of God shown to all through the crucified, risen, living and someday to return Jesus Christ.  When I look at the Church through the lens of Jesus Christ, many of the things that separate me from other believers really aren’t that important.  So what if Anglicans use wine and Baptists use grape juice and the Africa Brotherhood Church uses some local dried powder reconstituted with questionable water?  We all see it as the blood of Christ, which ties us together with an unbreakable bond.

May the peace of God be with you.

WWJD

Every now and then, I am struck by the wonder and breadth of the Christian church.  The Church worships God and that worship comes from many places in many languages and in many forms.  Whether it is a formal, liturgical English service or a relaxed, informal Kikamba service, God is worshipped and it is still the church.  While some lament the fragmentation of the church into denominations, I actually rejoice in the diversity of the church–since we are all different as humans, it makes sense that God would allow the Church to develop structures and forms that allow everyone to have a place to comfortably worship God.

That aspect of our diversity excites and encourages me.  It says that God speaks our language; that God accepts our worship in all its diversity; that God cares about who we are and what has meaning for us.  We may struggle with human diversity but God seems to celebrate and encourage it.  I appreciate the ability to worship in different styles and languages with different approaches to music and liturgy and preaching.

But there is a dark side to our diversity.  The dark side begins when we become aware of our differences and begin to think that different automatically means that we are right and they are wrong.  It occurs when we begin to think that Jesus must have done things the way we do things and that he must somehow have put his stamp of approval on our ways.  When  we begin to claim that Jesus is on our side, we have moved into the darkness.

While I would like to think that Jesus was a Baptist, the reality is that Jesus was non-denominational.   He wasn’t Baptist or Catholic or Pentecostal or Anglican–but at the same time, he is all of these and more.  And so, while I read the New Testament with my Baptist bias and find support for believers’ baptism by full immersion, I need to realize that there is also support for other forms of baptism.  Would Jesus practise immersion or pouring or sprinkling?  Well, since there is no record of Jesus actually baptizing anyone, we can’t say for sure what he would have done.

And if we can’t say for sure what he would have done, we probably need to have a more open mind on baptism that we generally do.  That reality generalizes to most of church life.  We don’t have a clear and definitive model of the church in the New Testament.  Sometimes, it acts congregational, as it did in Acts 15 when the church was dealing with the issue of how to deal with the influx of Gentile believers coming from  Paul’s ministry. At other times, it acts as a hierarchy,  with the apostles exercising considerable authority, as we see in other places in the book of Acts and in some of Paul’s writings.

I am not sure that Jesus had any particular denominational approach in mind when he set up the church.  He wanted the church to be the gathering of the faithful, a place where believers could help each other and reach into the world.  He wanted the church to be known for its love to God and its members.  He wanted the church to show the world a better way–but whether we should have a congregational or hierarchical system of government didn’t enter the picture.

He wanted the church to be his agent in the world–but didn’t tell us how we should structure our worship, what language we should worship in, what type of music we should use, who should preach, what style of preaching we should use, how long the worship should be and so on.  Most of the things that we look at and consider important in the church don’t even rate a mention in the New Testament, which should tell us a lot.

Rather than  try to make the whole church the same or waste time fighting over our differences, we in the church need to remember to worship God, love each other and show the light to the world.  Beyond that, we can enjoy our particular spot in the diversity that is the church while appreciating and maybe even borrowing from the rest of the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PICNIC

One of the collections of churches I serve has to meet once a year and plan our worship services for the coming year.  We have four buildings and only one worship service a week so we have to decide which building we meet it on which Sunday.  That sounds simple–we can just have a simple rotation where each building has worship every fourth Sunday.  Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

To start with, some buildings are better for some events–only two of them can host meals or receptions.  Each building needs to have worship on some of the special event days like Easter and Christmas.  Parking in the winter can be a problem at some of the locations.  So, every year, we have to have a meeting to take into consideration all these factors plus some others and design a schedule to be approved by the church.

(By the way, the answer to the question “Why not just have one building?” is long, complicated and while some have been asking it for years, we are not likely going to get to that point for a long time.)

Anyway, during the last planning session, we tried to add some different events to add some variety.  One of the additions was an outdoor worship service with a picnic to follow.  As we talked, we even decided to invite the members of my other pastorate to join with us.  When we were planning this late last year, this looked and sounded like a great idea.

But, as things got closer and closer, well, the idea needed to be structured and organized and put together better.  The key issue was the weather, something which is notoriously hard to predict in Nova Scotia.  We needed sunny and warm but would settle for cloudy and warm–cloud and rain would be a killer.

While I have great leaders in the congregations, as pastor there were some things that only I could take care of.  My first act was to discuss rainy day backup plans–if it was raining, the deacons and church moderator would make a final go/no go decision since I would be leading worship somewhere else when the final decision had to be made.

I also decided that I needed to be prepared for any eventuality.  After some thought, I decided that I would use the same sermon no matter where we were but the other elements of worship needed some attention.  We would need different music, different orders of service and even different announcement, which necessitated different bulletins.

I like to be prepared so I eventually prepared two complete worship services and two different bulletins.  I would choose the appropriate service when the time came and I would copy the bulletin just before I left for worship (remember, we are talking small congregations here–copying the bulletin doesn’t take that long) and hope that the weather didn’t change while I was on my way.

Some might suggest that my extra work to prepare two services and two bulletins was a sign of weak faith.  They might be right–I have never claimed to have great faith.  Since we actually did have the outdoor service and the picnic along with a sprinkle of rain, I didn’t need the backup service and so wasted my time.

But for me, it wasn’t wasted time.  If I hadn’t done the extra work to have a backup ready, I would have been more anxious and would have spent even more time worrying and fussing and wondering if I should have created a backup.  Knowing myself meant that I could circumvent the anxiety stage and do the back up.  The extra time spent on that saved me a lot of strain and stress during the week and even  more on Sunday.  No matter what happened, I was ready.

I can’t anticipate every twist and turn in ministry–but I have learned that I function better when I am ready for the ones that I can anticipate. It is means that I do a bit of extra work that ends up being unused, that isn’t a real problem since I have avoided a major amount of stress.  And while stress does have some good points, finding ways to reduce unnecessary stress is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOUNDED HEALERS

I am a pastor and have been a teacher of pastors.  I have worked with pastors in at least four countries, taught pastors from half a dozen countries and done pastoral work myself for over 40 years.  At the beginning of my pastoral career, I came to an important realization that has been strengthened and deepened by all my experience in pastoral work.  That realization is that we pastors are not perfect.

Now, that may seem like a glaringly obvious reality to many non-pastors but it can be hard for we who are pastors to really understand and believe this reality.  Our calling puts us in a privileged and important position.  We get involved in people’s lives when things are painful, hectic, exciting or confusing.  We deal with issues and thoughts and ideas that many people shy away from.  We get asked for advice and answers on many things from the trivial (Why do Baptists use grape juice for Communion?) to the profound (How can God love someone like me?).  We are seen as being the representative of God–when we are present, people can feel like God is present.

The always present temptation is the temptation to believe that we really are what some people think we are and to forget who we really are.  When I am the person to deliver the understanding of the presence of God and his grace, it is all too tempting to believe that something divine has rubbed off on me and that I have somehow been elevated to another level–certainly, in all modesty, I keep the halo hidden but, well, we all know that it is there.

Except that it really isn’t there.  I might be God’s representative, I might presume to speak for God twice each Sunday, I might mediate between the hurting world and the graceful God–but none of the holiness of God has rubbed off on me.  Or better, no more of it has rubbed off on me that has rubbed off on others–and there may be some who have managed to attract even more.

Very early in my ministry, I ran across Henri Nouwen’s book  The Wounded Healer.  Without even reading the book, I was and continue to be struck by the insight and profound truth expressed by the title.  Reading the book just amplifies and solidifies the bedrock reality that no matter what I think I am; no matter that I wrestle with the things of God as a matter of course; no matter that I can and do bring the awareness of God to the darkness of life, I am still human and approach my calling as an imperfect person who must deal with my own imperfections while I help others deal with theirs.  All of us need the grace of God, not just the people I work with.

God calls us in our wounded state and works to heal us.  But we will remain wounded and imperfect for the whole of our existence here.  We never reach perfection because as soon as we finally deal with one wound, God shows us another one.  When we take the bandage off one healed spot, we probably manage to cut ourselves with the scissors God gave us to cut the bandage and so need healing for that new wound.

As a pastor, I long ago realized I can’t really hide my wounds from anyone but myself.  And if I can’t hide them, I needed to learn how to do my calling with them.  Sometimes, I try to do it in spite of my wounds.  But mostly, I have realized that my best work at carrying out my calling comes when I let God work through both my strengths and my weaknesses.  Sometimes, the fact that I can get beyond my bouts of depression help people and sometimes the fact that I can still minister even during a bout of depression helps even more people.  Sometimes, my wounds need healing from the people I pastor, which is also part of God’s plan for me and them.

I am a pastor, which means that in the end, I am a wounded healer.  I need help even as I offer help.  Fortunately, the presence and grace of God means that he is willing to both heal me and work through me, just as he heals and works through those I am called to shepherd.

May the grace of God be with you.

WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.