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.

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.

FRIDAY MORNING

Because of the nature of my work week, Friday is one of the days when I try to avoid doing any work. That is not always possible: funerals, wedding rehearsals, nursing home services and other bits and pieces of ministry end up getting scheduled for Fridays. But as much as I can, I plan on avoiding work on Fridays.

In many ways, Friday is the end of the work week for me. I see my work week as running from Saturday to the next Thursday. Saturday involves preparation (and nervousness) for Sunday. Sunday involves worship and then opens the door to the rest of the work week with its requirements for sermon preparation, Bible study preparation and attendance, pastoral visits and everything else that I need to cram into my two 40% pastoral positions.

So, when Thursday evening rolls around, I am ready for a break. Friday morning becomes a mini-vacation, a day to focus on my stuff, not work—provided, of course, it isn’t nursing home service Friday, there isn’t a funeral and no one has picked this weekend to get married. I rarely have glamorous plans for Friday.

Fridays off often involve running errands like grocery shopping and banking. It can involve mowing the lawn during the appropriate season. Sometimes, it will involve a date for a movie and supper—not often enough for that but that is the reality of our lives. Now and then, it involves getting at some repair or maintenance issue that I have put off all week because of lack of time and/or energy.

What is generally doesn’t involve is sleeping in. Somehow, it feels wrong to sleep in on Friday. I am a morning person and normally, church works gets to claim mornings as I wrestle with sermons and Bible studies and how to get all the required information in the Sunday bulletin without having to produce an insert as well. And that is fine with me—working for the church is not just my job, it is also my calling and I need to give both God and the church my best, including the time of the day when I am at my best.

But Friday mornings—well, I have the sermons and the bulletin and the Bible study done. There isn’t a meeting, a nursing home service, a funeral or wedding rehearsal on the schedule. I can wake up at my regular time and know that when I sit in my chair with my breakfast granola and banana, it is my time. I can write a blog post, stare out the window, read a book, play solitaire—anything is possible and nothing is essential. For a couple of hours on Friday morning, my time belongs to me.

I am an moderately strong introvert and times like this are important to my overall mental, physical and spiritual health. Since my work keeps me connected with people, I need these spaces where there are no people. Ministry is people intensive—even when I am not physically with people, they are present. I write sermons with church people in mind. I think and pray about church people when I am reading for work. I am aware that for most people, I am just a phone call away.

But on Friday mornings, I am not working. The phone is in the bedroom, far enough away that I can pretend not to hear it, especially since my hearing aids are there as well. Any writing I do is for me—I know that people read my blogs, something for which I am deeply grateful but I don’t have the same level of connection with blog readers that I have with the church people I work for and with all day. Writing a blog is something for me—and the fact that others read it is icing on the cake.

So, Friday mornings are mine. The first couple of hours is my time, time that I need to feed and nurture me. And so I take it, I enjoy it, I grow because of it. The benefits of early Friday morning more than make up for the fact that I don’t sleep in after a busy week. Thank God for Friday mornings.

May the peace of God be with you.

BUSINESS MEETINGS

I don’t like meetings. There are a few that have been tolerable, many that have actually been important and a whole lot that could have been shorter, tighter and more effective. Generally, given an even choice between attending a meeting or going to the dentist, I would pick the dentist, except for the fact that going to the dentist is a lot like going to a meeting.

I don’t dispute the need for meetings. They are important and significant and are a necessary part of church and denominational and even normal life. I am not an anarchist, a dictator or a megalomaniac. Getting people together to talk about stuff is often the only way we can discover God’s leading and figure out how he wants us to do the work he has called us to do. Over the years, I have become very good at enabling meetings to become places where people have the freedom and encouragement to share and grow and develop ministry. I have also tied to teach other church leaders how to make meeting more effective and more a part of the process of discerning God’s leading.

But for all that, I don’t actually like meetings. So, when a new year rolls around, I brace myself for the wave of annual meetings I have to deal with—these days, that means anywhere up to a dozen different meetings by the time I count finance meetings, deacons’ meetings, congregational meetings and pastorate meetings. Sometimes, I am the chair of the meeting and other times, someone else chairs the meeting (I prefer someone else to be the chair).

Typically, church business meetings have been somewhat restricted to church members but because of the nature of our churches, we have been having open meetings and specifically inviting our non-members to be part of the process. I jokingly tell them during the announcement of the meeting that they are really a part of our fellowship and if we members have to endure the business meeting, they should have to as well.

One pastorate just wrapped up our season of annual meetings. And in spite of my antipathy to meetings, I felt that all the meetings in the process had a positive flavour. We did more than look at financial statements and hear reports. We spent time together, sharing about family and friends, passing on information about absent people, joking about who did what when. We were comforted by the fact that we didn’t go into debt over the past year and that we actually did some good stuff over the past year.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses—we talked about those who had died or had to move in the past year. We wondered how our aging creaky membership could look after our aging creaky buildings—none of us is able anymore to grab a hammer and fix the rotting sills that make the floor sag around the front door. But there are ways to deal with that, especially since we do have some money in the bank.

As pastor, I had some good things to report. Our churches grew over the year—not so much in numbers but definitely in faith. We have a sense of confidence in our churches. We have a developing understanding of how we are being salt and light in our communities; we are seeing some positive response from the community to the ministry we are doing; we have encouraged and enabled people to try a variety of things; we have experimented with worship and mission; we have shared life and all its triumphs and crises with prayer and support and casseroles. We have been the church.

So, I still hate meetings. But this meeting cycle has been worthwhile because it allowed us to take a look at ourselves and see where God has been working, what he has been doing and how he is leading us into the future. We have a bit of money, enough for our needs. Our buildings need some work but we can handle it. We have grown in a lot of ways—and we can all see it. We might have seen all that stuff without the meetings but then again, without the meetings, we wouldn’t have had the chance to get it all together at the same time. I won’t actually say “Thank God for meetings” but I will thank him for what he has shown us through the meetings.

May the peace of God be with you.

COUNTDOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CHOICES

As a pastor and someone involved in the task of helping others, I get contacted about a lot of things. Everyone seems to think that a pastor has nothing more to do than become involved with their particular concern. Most of the things people want me to become involved in or to help them with are worthwhile. Whether it is helping develop counselling resources in our region or helping provide food for hungry kids in school or housing for people who need it or defending the environment or preserving the built history of our area or—well, the list goes on and on.

And if I were rich, didn’t need to earn a living and didn’t have a bunch of things I am required to do, I might be interested in some of these things. But one of the realities of my life is that I already have a long list of required activity. Every week, I need to prepare and preach two sermons, develop and lead (or pretend to lead) two Bible studies, and keep a spiritual eye on the people I have been called to serve as pastor. I also have to be ready to drop everything to work with serious illness or funerals or other life crises. I am responsible for primary spiritual and emotional care for the people in the congregation. Along with all that, I have to find some time to cook and eat meals, exercise and sleep.

I am also finding that as I age, the energy I have available isn’t as plentiful as it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Burning the candle at both ends might be possible at 36 but at 66, the candle doesn’t actually allow for that. I keep being told by medical people that I am healthy—but then they add for a 66 year old, subtly reminding me that I am not 36.

So, I have to make choices. And these choices aren’t like choosing between drinking a cup of good coffee or a cup of stagnant puddle water. These are choices between things that are equally appealing, equally valid and equally important. Do I choose providing counselling for the adult victim of childhood sexual abuse or helping a shattered family process the death of their loved one or finding ways to discretely provide food and clothing to the kids in school whose families can’t afford it or take part in the long process to correct an environmental mess?

I learned early in my life that I can’t do everything—and learned almost as soon that I would have to say no to some very good things. I would like to say that I have developed a simple, easy to use two step process for making such decisions but since I am still a pastor, a profession that requires honesty (except in the case of sermon illustrations), I won’t say that.

I have found that the process of choosing isn’t easy, at least for me. I do have friends who semi-boastfully tell me that God spoke to them and made it clear what they were supposed to do. I believe God speaks but it always seems to take me a lot longer to get the message. And so I often find myself juggling choices, trying to figure out which ones I can do and which therefore have to be not chosen.

I do work hard when I have a choice like this to make and the work does include serious prayer. I don’t actually get down on my knees—the days of getting on my knees are long gone. But I do pray. Sometimes the prayer involves weighing consequences in the awareness of God’s presence. Sometimes, it involves a groaning plea something like, “What do I do?” And sometimes, it involves mowing the lawn or shovelling snow or staring out the window allowing God to move around in my thought process.

Eventually, I make a decision. Sometimes, I second guess the decision; occasionally, I feel guilty about the decision; now and then I even change the decision. But I work at making faith decisions about the various demands, claims and possibilities that I have to deal with. I really can’t do everything but doing one thing often involves not doing something else, which means I have to think carefully and pray hard about the choices I make.

May the peace of God be with you.

DURING THE HYMN…

As our church’s regular worship leader, I am normally quite busy during the singing of the hymns. I am checking to make sure that I have the next hymn marked, looking over the congregation to see if I missed anyone’s absence, making sure I have the right spot in the order of service set up on the tablet and, more and more these days with my aging tablet, making sure that I have enough battery power left to finish the service. Needless to say, I am not generally paying a lot of attention to the hymn.

But during a recent service, one line caught my attention. The organist had picked “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the opening hymn—and did her usual excellent job of playing the hymn—I almost felt I needed to march around the sanctuary during the chorus. What caught my attention, though, was the first line of the third verse, where we sang, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God”.

As we sang those words, I was struck by a sense of something—irony, delusion, confusion—something. Here we were, the seventeen of us who made up the congregation that day singing words that compared us to a mighty army. Now, it is true that our numbers were down that day for a variety of reasons: some were travelling, some were at another community function, some were sick and some were just AWOL. But even at our best, we are not a mighty army—mostly, the best our congregations can come with is a seriously under strength platoon and that depends heavily on visitors and summer people.

And our under strength platoon disresembles an army in many other ways. The two deacons who take up the offering are both in their 80s—they are doing really well for their age but they are still in their 80s. The pastor (me) isn’t capable of marching too far—I limp to the door to greet people after being on my feet for the worship service.

And so, our under strength, aging platoon creakily gets to our feet and songs words that proclaim us to be a mighty army. Maybe I should have checked the tablet battery one more time instead of paying attention to the words of the hymn. But then again, maybe the Spirit meant me to focus on those words.

Our church isn’t an army by any stretch of preacherly exaggeration. We were probably closer to that years ago when worship attendance could reach company strength but even at our best, we were never a mighty army. These days, we mostly wonder if we will have enough people to sing the hymns let alone do mighty army acts, whatever they are.

But we are a church—and we are part of the Church Universal, that body of believers stretching through time and space to encompass all people who have discovered the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We might be a small part of that Church Universal but we are still a part of it. And because we are a part of the whole church, the success, triumphs and victories of the church belong to us as well, just as our triumphs past, present and future belong to the whole church.

Our under strength platoon might not be triumphing like the booming church army in Kenya, for example. We might be losing members rather than gain members faster than we can count. We might not be standing up to persecution and government corruption and discrimination. We might not know how long we will keep our doors open, especially if we don’t figure out how to fix the sagging floor in the sanctuary.

But we are touching lives. We helped several families through the pain of death. We are growing in our personal faith through our Bible study group. We are helping the local school provide care for disadvantaged students. We can and do provide prayer support for anyone and everyone who asks for it and for many who don’t ask for it. We support church efforts here, there and everywhere through our offerings and prayers.

So maybe our under strength, seriously aged platoon isn’t a mighty army. But we are still part of a mighty army; we still belong to the victorious side; we have a place and a mission and we are doing it as best we can, with the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

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.

SOMETIMES I WONDER…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you