FIXER-UPPER

I confess–I can’t help it.  In the last post, I was content to share my fix-it rules and leave it at that.  Writing the post helped pass the time while the glue on the Fitbit repair dried (it is still holding).  But I am a teacher and a preacher as well as a fixer–and most of my ministry has been spend working for an organization that always needs fixing.  Given that no church has ever been perfect and there will never be a perfect church until we all come together as perfected beings in heaven, there is always something that needs to be fixed in the church.  So, I am going to take a simple post written while fixing a Fitbit and turn it into a pastoral illustration about fixing churches.

But there, however,  are some important differences between what I do with lawn mowers, broken furniture and Fitbits.  One of the first and most significant differences is that in the church, I am not just the fixer–I am also part of the problem.  I am generally involved with churches as pastor–but that doesn’t change the fact that I bring my own flaws and difficulties to the church.

When I approach the church, I need to make sure that the thing I think I am called to fix isn’t more my problem than the church’s problem.  I also need to make sure that the fix I think I am called to apply isn’t coming from my needs and flaws and not the church needs and flaws.  Basically, the first rule of fixing in the church is that we are all in need of some fixing at some point.  If I forget that rule, I just might fix the church into a worse mess than it was before.  Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that too many of us who have tried to fix the church have forgotten our own need to be fixed.

The second rule of church fixing comes from the fact that sometimes the things that actually need to be fixed aren’t that easy to see, or some relatively minor need covers a much deeper and much more serious need.   In the kind of small churches that I work with, there are always some obvious things that new pastors think should be fixed.  Most people prefer to sit near the back, making it hard for them to hear.  A lot of pastors spend a lot of energy trying to fix that by getting people to move up to the front.

But where people sit is something of a distraction for deeper, more serious problems that have a more serious effect on the long-term health of the church.  I have learned to ignore the distraction and focus on the seating pattern, which sometimes reveals the underlying problem of tensions and factions in the church, something that is very serious and which actually needs to be addressed–carefully and sensitively and patiently–but still needs to be addressed much more than whether people sit at the back or not.

But for me, the biggest difference between fixing a broken chair leg and fixing a church has to do with the fact that when I fix a chair leg or a Fitbit or a lamp cord, I am on my own.  Sure, I can talk to friends, check my home repair books, look things up on the internet–I can even sidestep the whole process and hire someone to do the work.  But even with all that, I am in charge of the repairs.  I decide what to do, what not to do, what rules to follow and which ones to ignore.

In the church, though, I am not alone.  I work with the church in the process.  The Fitbit doesn’t know or care that I am trying to fix it–it has no input on what I do.  But the church does–I need their permission and cooperation in the process.  It is not me, the expert, fixing them, the problem.  It is us, a collection of flawed individuals seeking to use our collective gifts and abilities to address our collective issues.  In the church, we are all fixer and fixee.

And as well, we aren’t on our own–all our fixes and repairs need to be done with the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t see the need on my own; I don’t develop the fix process on my own; I don’t implement it on my own.  We, the church, open ourselves to each other and the Holy Spirit who shows us where we need fixing, guides us to the proper fix and helps us in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

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MY DAY

I had an interesting work day recently that seems to me to be begging to be recounted.  The day began normally enough.  I did my morning routine:  exercise, Bible reading, breakfast and so on.  But from that point on, the rest of the day was spent running from one thing to another, dealing with bits and pieces that had accumulated and whose execution all fell on the same day.

The first task was to finish preparing the funeral service that was coming that afternoon. Funerals are a part of ministry that are generally unpredictable and so put a serious strain on pastor’s schedules.  So, although I had known about this one for three days, I couldn’t work the preparation in to my schedule until the morning of the service.  That wasn’t a major problem–I have often pulled the pages off the printer on my way to the funeral.  These days, I don’t do that anymore–I transfer the service details from my laptop to the tablet (and to my phone as a backup.)

I finished working on the funeral service just in time to head out to help a congregation member set up for a fund raising event.  While that isn’t in my job description, she was a bit desperate because a variety of people who normally help couldn’t make it. Her call the night before was filled with apologies and assurances that if I couldn’t make it, it was okay.  But I had the time and since I benefit from the fund raising as much or more than anyone else, I went and helped.

After that, well, I needed to finalize the text for the wedding scheduled for the next day.  Weddings, unlike funerals, tend to be scheduled long before hand.  This one had actually been scheduled several months earlier.  So, how come I was finishing the text the day before the service?  Well, the bride and groom wanted to write their own vows and didn’t get them to me until the day before, when I was tied up with other stuff.  But getting them done the day before the service–well, that could be classed as long-term planning compared to funeral preparation.

So, next is a quick lunch and a rushed nap (Google the health benefits of a regular nap) before I get ready for the funeral.  I arrive at the church building for the funeral, pass some time with the funeral director and greet the family and friends.  As people are coming it begins to rain and so we have a quick consultation with the family about holding the committal service in the sanctuary rather than at the graveyard.

After the funeral service, I rush home, make a quick change and head out for the wedding rehearsal. The rain has stopped which is great since this is an outdoor wedding.  But the sky is still dark and threatening and I wonder if I should grab a plastic bag to protect my tablet.  Haste wins and I risk the rain, which does sprinkle a bit during the rehearsal.  The rehearsal goes fairly well, except for the 5-10 minutes I have to spend helping the bride and groom learn how to tie a reef knot for the knot ceremony they want as part of their vows. We figure it out, the tablet remains dry enough to work and everything is ready for tomorrow.

I head for home, having put in a pretty full and varied day.  I have done a lot of stuff, connected with a lot of people and managed to get everything done that had pushed itself into this particular day.  There are two things that stand out in my mind for this day.  First, it was a strange day, even for a pastor.  Most days in ministry are a bit more predictable–or at least have fewer unpredictable bits and pieces.  Except for the wedding rehearsal, this day was made up almost completely of unpredicted somewhat critical things, almost as if someone shook out the container and dumped all the left-over stuff on the same day.

The second thing that stands out for me about this day?  This all happened on a Friday, one of my days off.  Not every day off is like this and I will definitely make up for it–but now and then, it happens.  But if ministry were totally predictable, that wouldn’t be much fun.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DILEMMA OR AN OPPORTUNITY?

I like structure.  I like order and predictability.   I am an organized person.  My workshop has a place for all my tools, a place where I expect them to be.  Now, I am not obsessive about the order and structure–I haven’t drawn the outline of the tool on the wall behind its place on the wall.  But I do know where the tool is because I put it there in the first place and return it to its place when I am finished using it.  Tools don’t  lie around on the work bench partly because I don’t have a lot of workbench space but mostly because I put them away when I am done with them–one of the rituals I have when finishing a session in the workshop is making sure all the tools are back where they belong.

I have friends whose tools tend to get deposited here there and everywhere.  When they want a 15/64s drill bit, they have to think about the last project they used the drill bit on and search that work area–or go buy a new one.  I might not remember when I last used the 15/64s drill bit but I do know the bit will be in its container where it is supposed to be, unless I broke it the last time I used it, in which case, the replacement is in the proper place in the container.

My books are organized–now, the organizing principles might not be readily understandable to anyone else, but I understand it and can find the book I want when I want it because it is where it is supposed to be.  Even my computer and tablet files are structured and organized so that I can find the file I want when I want it–I know the topic of the file and can quickly find the appropriate folder and sub-folder.

So, with that in mind, I approach the church, where as I have already mentioned, there is more chaos than structure;  more confusion than order; more questions than answers.  About the only thing that is predictable about the church many times is that if a person who attends regularly shows up, they will sit in their particular place.  Almost everything else, well, it is probably easier to herd cats than get everyone and everything in its place in the church.

So, I go from the structure of my workshop and study and computer to the chaos of the church.  I carefully put my tools away, replace the books in their proper places, save the files in their proper sub-folders, put everything I will need in the proper brief case, check the phone calendar to make sure I am on time and going to the right place and step into the chaos of the church.

On some levels, my structured personality should find the church difficult and frustrating–but the truth is, I don’t find it that way.  Certainly, I can and do get frustrated with some church stuff.  I occasionally get frustrated with some church people.  But on the whole, I enjoy the church and its chaos.  My love of structure doesn’t mean that I approach the church with fear and trembling.

And as I have thought about that, I realized that my appreciation for structure isn’t one of the driving forces of my life.  What is a driving force is the gift that the Holy Spirit exercises through me, the gift of helping bring structure and sense to what appears to be chaotic.  I don’t have an obsessive need for structure–rather, I have a Spirit given gift of being able to make sense out of chaos for myself and others.  Having structure isn’t the goal of my life either in the workshop or the church.

Helping create an appropriate and workable structure out of what seems chaotic is one of the goals of my life.  And it is a goal not because I need the structure but because God has been and continues using me to help congregations see their underlying structure and order that their chaos both hides and reveals.  This is important because as the divine structure and order become visible to the church, they can become much more effective and comfortable with their place in God’s work and his kingdom.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHAOS OR GROWTH?

I realized that to anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (thank you–I really appreciate your support) the situations I describe from the congregations I serve could sound somewhat chaotic.  We have people talking during worship, people making comments and asking questions during the sermon, Bible studies that might get on topic once a month, business meetings that have little structure, a very fluid and changing concept of membership among other things.

While it might all seem a bit chaotic, the deeper reality is that it is very chaotic at times.  As pastor, I am often playing catch up and am more likely to be surprised by the latest suggestion than I am to have originated the suggestion. I do prep work on Bible Study and sermons and make plans for a variety of things and sometimes–many times–the actual on the ground activity takes off in a very different direction.  To say that I am the leader of the congregations that give me a pay cheque every month would probably be technically correct, at least as far as the modern understanding of pastoral ministry is concerned.  But the practical reality is that I most often feel like a leaf floating down a stream, twisting and turning and bumping into things as I am carried along by the current.

And I love it.  I have never felt that it was my job as pastor to be the leader.  I don’t have the need to determine every aspect of the life of the church.  I don’t see the church as an  institution that needs my great wisdom and knowledge to keep it on the right track and prevent it from going astray.  Mostly, that is because the church isn’t an institution or an organization or a business or anything like that.

Essentially, the church is a group of people linked by their common allegiance to God through Jesus Christ, each one filled with the Holy Spirit.  We come into the faith as different people and we grow in the faith in different ways and in different directions.  But because we all have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, each one of us has something valuable and important to offer to the church.  Because of that, most of my ministry has been focused on discovering the leading of the Holy Spirit for the particular group of church people I have been called to work with.

And so much of my ministry is spend listening and responding.  I do work hard at trying to bring together all the disparate voices and views of the Spirit’s leading,  because I believe one of the gifts the Spirit has given me is the ability to create an overview of the confusing and complex package that is a local expression of the church.  I am not called to impose my overview on the church–rather, I am gifted and called to help the church discover the overview that the Holy Spirit is seeking to bring to a particular gathering of believers.

One of my early ministry discoveries was that in order for my gift to be effective, there has to be stuff happening.  My particular ministry gifts thrive best in what often seems a chaotic situation.  I seem to work best when there are lots of expressions of the Spirit coupled with the ever-present reality that some of what the church and I think are expressions of the Spirit are really not coming from God.

So, the Bible Study, the worship, the meetings, the encounters with people–all these things that come together to make a church that seems chaotic and confused are in actual fact part of the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  As I participate in the chaos, reacting often and initiating occasionally, part of my Spirit given giftedness is to help the church make sense of the chaos and discover just what God is saying to us and where he is leading us.

I struggle with this at times because I am not naturally inclined to chaos.  I like structure and organization and predictability.   I use my gifts to help the congregation go from chaos to growth–but then the growth produces another type of chaos and so I keep going, responding to the chaos that is the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING TIRED

One of the interesting dichotomies I see among pastors who have been in the business for a long period of time concerns what happens after retirement.  Some never seem to really retire.  They announce their retirement, leave the church and then within a few days, are announcing that they are now the interim pastor or permanent supply or part-time pastor somewhere.  When they are done there, they announce another retirement and then within a short time, are announcing another interim or supply or part-time position somewhere else.  I occasionally joke that such people just love retirement parties.

Another group retire–and they actually retire.  Some might do some occasional supply preaching but they even set limits on that.  They turn down requests to be interim or part-time.  They avoid long term supply preaching.  Some actually stop everything associated with public ministry.  They attend worship but avoid teaching Sunday School, becoming deacons or anything like that.

Because my favourite all time question is “why?”, I wanted to know what the difference was.  My initial working hypothesis was that somehow, the stop group were better and gave more of themselves to the ministry and therefore were spiritually and vocationally worn out.  That would mean that the keep going group probably didn’t give as much of themselves and therefore weren’t affected as much.

But although there was some evidence this was the case, there really wasn’t enough to prove the case conclusively and there was enough lots of conflicting evidence.  Two good friends who have recently retired are in the stop group and they were good, caring and hard working pastors.  But others, equally hard working and caring, are on their second or third retirement.  There was also the example of two equally good, equally caring people in identical high profile ministries.  One retired so many times he is probably listed in the Guinness book  of records.  The other rarely did anything ministry related after retirement.

So, why am I looking at this and thinking about this?  Well, I am retirement age but not retired.  It is coming, though.  I can’t see the handwriting on the wall but know that the pen is probably in position.  Then I will have to decide if I am going to retire once or become a serial retirest. (I know that isn’t a real word but it works–my blog, my choice).  Right now, I can’t imagine wanting more than one retirement.

The best answer I can give to the whole issue right now is that we are all different and therefore our response to ministry is going to be different.  Just as we all have different levels of physical, emotional and spiritual energy, so also we have different levels of vocational energy.  The demands of ministry are going to affect us differently, depleting our stores of energy at different rates.  The cycle of our ministry is going to have an effect.  I am pretty sure that if I hadn’t had a break from pastoral ministry in the form of a couple of years teaching in Kenya followed by a depressing year of unemployment, I would have been ready to retire and retire in the stop category by now.

Since I probably lean towards the stop category, I think I understand the need some people have to finish and not go back.  This doesn’t mean we give up on life–a retirement with no focus and no activity and  no reason to enjoy life will be a short retirement.  The statistics suggest that people who give up everything on retirement tend to die early.  But for some of us, that point and focus of life will likely have to be something very different from whatever we did in our working life.

Ministry, because of its demands and stresses is going to make some people really tired–and that vocational fatigue isn’t the sign of a lack of faith or doing too much or too little.  It is simply one more sign that God has made all of us different and that one size (or plan) doesn’t fit all.  In the end, I really don’t know for sure when I will retire and I don’t know how many retirements I will have.  But I do know that when I am ready, I will listen to myself and to the Holy Spirit and do what seems right at the time, based on my needs and the leading of the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

I am now back at work after a two week vacation, which I enjoyed and appreciated.  But as the vacation was winding down, I realized something.  Normally, when I am on vacation, one of the low level background activities going on in my mind concerns whatever ministry or ministries I happen to be involved in.  In the past, I have vacationed and during the down time, I have planned courses, worked on preaching plans, thought about directions for ministry and so on.  This just sort of happened and didn’t take time and energy from the vacation–I could paddle a canoe, enjoy the lake, talk to my family and still organize a preaching plan enough so that when I actually sat down at a desk, I could remember the plan.

But this vacation, I didn’t do that.  Well,  I did give some thought to a Bible Study I am leading for the local church council later this fall during one of the times my wife was sleeping during the drive to Quebec but that was it.  I didn’t do sermon planning.  I didn’t organize the self-evaluation process some of the churches will begin in a couple of weeks.  I didn’t look at what we can do to improve our community visibility and involvement.  I didn’t even work on the new Bible study that I actually needed to have done for the first day back at work.

I would like to say that this comes from a newly discovered maturity that allows me to be on vacation when I am on vacation.  We clergy have a terrible time taking time off–we all too often treat vacation time as time to get caught up and maybe even get a bit ahead.  Of course, we all know that we are not supposed to do that.  Study after study shows that stress and its related consequences are enhanced by not taking proper time off.  We clergy struggle to relax and unwind.  Partly that is the nature of our calling–our work is never really done.  As I often told students, “You can preach the best sermon ever on Sunday–but you then have to start getting ready for next Sunday.”

Another part of the inability to really relax is our personality.  Many of us in ministry are deeply committed to serving God and therefore somewhat driven.  We believe that we have been called by God to important work and breaks, vacations and relaxation somehow seem sinful so we try to appease our conscience by working even on breaks.  I remember one book on pastoral ministry telling readers that the absolute best use of vacation time was to prepare the next year’s sermon plan.

But in spite of all of that and years of practise, I didn’t do any church work while on vacation–and didn’t even think of the churches all that much.  But I am pretty sure that it wasn’t because I have finally matured and developed wisdom and positive self-care practises.  I think that in the end, I didn’t think about or do work because I didn’t want to.

I have been involved in ministry for a long time and while I still believe I have a lot more ministry to do, I am tired.  Not physically tired and not spiritually tired–and not even emotionally tired.  I think I am vocationally tired.  Ministry is demanding and complex and difficult when done well–and I think I have reached the point where I can’t really do what I used to do.

Just like my bad knees won’t let me walk for hours a day like I used to so my ministry engines are getting worn and tired and need a real break.  It doesn’t mean that I care less about the people I minister to.  It isn’t a sign that I don’t care about my preaching any more.  It doesn’t say that I  am not concerned with the self-examination process we are beginning.  What it says to me is that I don’t have the energy I used to have and I really need to take real breaks.  When I work, I work–and when I rest, I rest.

Probably if I had started actually using vacation to rest years ago, I wouldn’t be as vocationally tired now–but at least I have learned to do it now.

May the peace of God be with you.

CYCLES OF LIFE

Fall has arrived, at least unofficially.  That means that life in the churches I serve shifts into another pattern.  Our summer pattern is being pushed aside by the demands of the fall pattern.  All churches that I know have different patterns depending on the time of the year.  Most, for example, have a more relaxed and less structured summer schedule–with people going away for vacations and so on, summer definitely isn’t the time to be introducing new ideas, new programs and new deeply significant sermon series.  Fall–well, generally people are ready for something new and different and even challenging.  But it has to be something that will fit nicely into the time frame allowed before the Christmas season overtakes us.  And of course, after Christmas, we are in the midst of the winter season where we can’t really predict which program or Sunday sermon will get wiped out by the coming blizzard.

I have always been a pastor of churches whose members are connected to farming and fishing.  That means we generally have to consider the cycles of those activities in our church planning process–there is really no point in planning a men’s retreat at the beginning of fishing or farming season.  It probably isn’t all that wise to plan the retreat for the first weekend of hunting or sport fishing season either, at least in the rural areas that I work in.

When I worked in Kenya, I had to learn to become familiar with the rainy season cycle and its associated activities–and since Kenya has two rainy seasons, that meant switching gears twice a year.  I learned not to plan road trips to rural congregations during the rainy season because good rains means good crops and bad roads.

There are other cycles that are less frequent but which also need to be taken into consideration.  Election cycles have some effect on our lives and therefore our churches.  Child bearing and raising cycles affect what we do.  The school year makes a difference as does the boom and bust cycle of some resource based jobs.

In our lives, we live through some significant cycles.  Education, dating, starting families, changing jobs, aging and its related issues all are part of large human cycles and all affect what we do and when we do it.

Sometimes, when I look at all the cycles and patterns and so on, I actually wonder how I am going to get anything done at all. Fall is here–but my fall planning will be interrupted by Thanksgiving (here in Canada, Thanksgiving is in early October).  Post Christmas planning is always iffy and many people don’t even want to think about doing anything beyond basic programs until March–because you never know when there will be a snow storm.

In the end, all of our lives are tied up in a variety of cycles.  There are repetitive seasons and events and times and the best thing we can do is remember then and consider them and work with them.  It tends to make things a bit more complicated by ignoring the cycles becomes even more complicated–the men’s retreat at the beginning of the spring planting cycle really isn’t going to be particularly well attended event–nor is preaching a critical sermon on a warm dry Sunday in the middle of haying season.

As a pastor, I need to keep track of all the seasons and cycles and repetitive things–but I also need to be able to look beyond all of them and have a sense of where this is all going.  It become a bit like following a compass course in the woods.  If you spend all your time looking at the trees close by, you quickly get off course.  To get to where you are going, you need to look along the compass course and ignore the close trees to find a distant landmark that can be clearly seen and head towards it.  Then, you can circle around tress and swamps and holes and rocks and whatever else it in  the way because you can see where you are going.

As a pastor, I see and know the cycles of life in the church–and then try to look beyond them to see where God is leading us.  That landmark helps all of us keep moving the right way.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK HOME

As I mentioned in previous posts, we have been on vacation, travelling in Quebec with our daughter and son-in-law.  We had a great trip–we visited some great places, saw some really exciting things, ate some great meals and had a great time together talking and laughing and sharing.  We ate too much of the wrong things generally at the wrong time; we slept in and started the day late and finished it late.  We didn’t have internet most of the time and generally didn’t miss it.  In short, it was a great vacation.

But as we were on the final section of the drive home, the urge to drive faster and faster became stronger and stronger–fortunately, my wife, who likes cruise control, was driving at that point and therefore able to resist the urge to speed up.  When we pulled in the driveway, we were both glad to be home, even if it meant engaging in the tedious process of unpacking, putting away and picking up pieces.  We were glad to be home.

So, we were glad to be away and glad to be home.  I think it is interesting that most of us have similar reactions to vacations and being away.  Unless the reason for being away is painful or forced, we tend to like the change and distraction and difference–at least for a while.  But there seems to be a somewhat hard to define limit to the change and distraction and difference.  We need a certain amount of time–but if we have even one day longer, the whole thing changes character and becomes less exciting and less interesting and maybe even irritating.

The real difficulty, at least for me, is figuring out the optimal time for being away.  On the whole, I like where we live, I like my work, I like my surroundings.  I like my routine–schedules have a way of helping me find peace and stability.  I need breaks and trips away now and then, but they need to be breaks and not the norm.  And they need to be the right length–to short and I don’t get the break and too long begins to undercut the benefits of being away.

One of the benefits of self-knowledge is the ability to understand our own needs and take them into consideration as we deal with the details of our lives.  I have never been a great fan of the whole extreme self-denial and even self-abuse school of Christianity.  Living on 2 hours of sleep accompanied by bread and water once a week might look good in the biography of some saint or other but as a real life style, it doesn’t do much for anyone.

Knowing who I am and what works for me and allowing myself to take my needs and desires into consideration allows me to be better at being me and at doing what I need to do.  Knowing that I need several vacation periods during the year in order to be effective in my work is important.  If I try to keep going beyond my limits, denying the basic realities of who I am, I end up tired, grumpy, frustrated and increasingly ineffective in my ministry.  Extreme self-denial doesn’t make me more spiritual–in fact, it does just the opposite.

Certainly, some self-denial is good for me.  While I like chocolate, a diet of chocolate isn’t going to do me much good in the long run.  I really like coffee–but too much of that great stuff  ends up creating all sorts of problems for me.  I also enjoy eating–but too much eating tends to make my clothes tight and stretches my belt.

The issue seems to me to be finding the balance between healthy indulgence and healthy denial.  Our just completed vacation worked because it was the perfect length and the perfect amount of self-indulgence.  But now, we are back home and I can eat less, sleep properly and even exercise regularly–and even more, I am ready to get back to work with a renewed and rested spirit.  While I didn’t do anything in the way of work while I was away, I am ready to get back to it, with all sorts of idea and plans and energy.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOTHING TO SAY

During one of our times working in Kenya, I was team teaching a course for potential teachers.  Both the mission agency we worked for and the church we were working with recognized the need to develop qualified local teachers for the pastoral training school.  So, a group of pastors and other church workers were identified as possibilities and were brought together for the course.

Since the whole purpose of the course was to identify potential teachers, all the participants had to do some very practical assignments:  develop a course outline, organize a lecture schedule and teach at least one session from their prepared course.  It was during one of the practise teaching sessions that I saw another side of one of my Kenyan friends and got a perfect story for aspiring preachers and teachers all over the world.

My friend was a senior, well respected and capable church leader–but he always appeared to me to be a bit on the stiff side.  While I had seen him laugh and joke, that was only in small private groups.  In public, he was serious, sober and to a lot a people, a bit intimidating.  But during one of the practise teaching sessions, his other side came out.

The student who was practise teaching was well meaning, capable, and eventually became a very good teacher but that particular day, his anxiety or lack or caffeine or some combination of factors caused him to attempt to deliver one of the most boring and pointless teaching sessions of the whole course.  As he droned on, I was getting more and more disappointed–I had taught this student before and had been impressed by his abilities.  I was sure that he would be good but this day, he succeeded in putting at least half the class to sleep.

Except for my friend, who decided that enough was enough.  He began coughing–at first, it was a barely noticeable cough, as would be fitting in a real class.  But it began to escalate to the point where he was shaking his seat, waking up the students around him and eventually falling on the floor, causing the rest of the students and the instructors to scurry around trying to help:  getting water, opening the classroom door for fresh air, helping his sit up right.  Soon, everyone as involved, except for the student teacher, who kept right on with his lesson plan, even when it was clear that no one, not even the instructors, was listening.

My friend was fine–he was faking the coughing fit to make a point.  The point was that this student teacher wasn’t paying any attention to the class, making his efforts to teach worthless.  He wasn’t teaching a class–he was talking for the sake of talking.  The student teacher had absolutely nothing to say to the class but was determined to say it anyway.

I wonder how many sincere and searching believers have sat through the same thing Sunday after Sunday.  They gather to hear a word from the Lord, some comfort or direction from God and get nothing but pointless words from a preacher who has no connection with them or their lives.  Instead of creating a deeper relationship with God and a better grasp of their faith, the emptiness of the words becomes an irritating and pointless noise, good only as background for a nap or a good daydream.

Good teachers and good preachers must have a deep respect and love for their listeners.  That respect and love is necessary because it pushes us to discover what these respected and loved people are looking for and what the God who also loves and respects them has to say for them.  We who teach and preach stand between the people and God and in the exercise of our gifts, we seek to open them to God and interpret God’s love and grace to them.  Without a firm connection to both God and the people we are called to teach, we are wasting the people’s time, our time and God’s time.

In the end, if we feel that the message can be delivered to anyone at anytime and they have to listen, we are doing exactly what the student preacher did.  We are called to deliver specific messages from God to specific people at specific times–and if we aren’t doing that, maybe someone in the audience will fake a coughing fit to show us the error of our ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PLANNING PROCESS

            I make a lot of plans.  I am an organized, structured person and like the sense of security a good plan and effective schedule provides me with.  My daily schedule promises me that I can get the things done that I need to do and want to do and allows me to work and play well.  I have parts of the plan on my phone calendar, part of it in my mind and part of it is so automatic that I don’t even think about it or write it down.

When it comes to my work, I like to have structure.  I don’t like having to decide on Tuesday what I will be preaching about on Sunday.  I like to have at least three months of sermons planned ahead, with at least Scriptures, themes and a sense of how the sermon fits into the overall ministry of the church.  Big events, special events and so on all get entered into the plan and I can work on them as I have time.  I have a daily schedule, a monthly schedule, a seasonal schedule and a yearly schedule.

And with that, you might begin to think that I am an overly structured, somewhat rigid individual who tries to make the world fit my schedule.  You might be right, except for the fact that I am also a pastor, a part of a profession that is notorious for its assaults on carefully planned schedules.

Certainly, there are parts of ministry that are rigidly scheduled.  Worship takes place at a certain time every week, barring snow storms.  Bible Study occurs every week at the same time and generally at the same place.  Certain people are going to call or drop in at pretty much the same interval month after month.  These predictable and scheduled things are like the footing wall around ministry.

But beyond that, predictability goes out the window.  Real ministry involves working with real people who have real issues at real times–and they don’t pay much attention to the schedules and structures of the pastor.  I have come to expect that unexpected at the most inopportune times.

I might schedule the few minutes before people begin arriving for worship as a time to mentally and spiritually prepare myself for leading worship–but once people get used to the idea that I am there early, those who just need a minute or two show up early, sometimes just to chat and sometimes to drop the bombshell that they have cancer or are moving away or are getting a divorce.

I might schedule the early morning for study and writing–but the person worried about their spouse in the hospital just wants help now.  The family that suffers a death in the night doesn’t really care that my schedule calls for me to be asleep at 2:23am–they need a pastor right now and don’t consult my schedule before making the call.

Ministry is conducted in the context of some rigid and scheduled events and a great many unpredictable and therefore impossible to schedule events which often must be dealt with right then in spite of what the schedule says.

This can be a recipe for chaos and all of us in ministry probably struggle to deal with the chaos.  Some approach it by ignoring schedules.  Ministry becomes a series of opportunities that require the pastor to hop from one thing to another, finishing the sermon during the second hymn and choir selection and doing Bible study on a wing and a prayer.  They hop from one thing to another and somehow, everything gets done, sort of.

Me, well, I prefer to schedule and structure and then revise the structure to account for the emergency.  I can flow from event to event, coping with the emergencies and still have the sermon done before the worship actually begins.  And because I am scheduled and organized, everything gets done, somehow, sort of.

Working with people is inherently chaotic.  Human life has twists and turns and surprises and the unexpected all over the place.  I find it easier to cope with the unscheduled by having a schedule to provide a foundation.  Others find it easier to forego the schedule and get right to the chaos.  In the end, as long as we end up helping people discover the love and grace of God, which approach we take depends more on who we are and what we need to feel at peace.

May the peace of God be with you.