A GOOD COMBINATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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CHURCH GROWTH

I was reading an article recently dealing with church growth. Now, I am not normally a fan of church growth articles but this was from someone whose stuff I read regularly and who almost always has good stuff to say. I liked what he had to say in the article but I was actually more interested in a chain of thought that developed for me as I was reading and afterwards.

I pastor small churches, churches which have a stable and involved attendance. We know each other; we appreciate each other; we are aware of each other’s gifts and abilities; we generally know why someone isn’t present. Our small numbers present some problems at times because we lack bodies to do specific jobs—or, as is sometimes the case, the bodies we have are no longer capable of the jobs that need to be done.

It would be nice to have more people, which I suppose puts me in the category of church growth supporter. But I realized that I simply don’t see church growth in the same way as some people do. Often, church growth is presented in terms of statistical analysis, with suggestions that a certain growth rate is healthy; that a certain percentage of the community is open to evangelism; that various approaches to outreach have specified success rates. The discussions and planning focus on numbers.

But my thinking goes in a totally different direction, something I realized as I was reading that article after a week in which I had two funerals in one of the pastorates I serve. Both were men who were well known in the community and had many connections, which meant that many of the same people attended both funerals. Before and after the service, I had a chance to connect with many of those attending. Both church and non-church people were there and since I have lived in this area for almost than 40 years, I knew most of the people attending.

So, at one point, a couple coming in to the second funeral was held up in the line to sign the condolence book. The husband looked at me and said that this was the third death he had to deal with this week. His voice was shaky and his eyes were watery—and this from a strong, no nonsense, salt of the earth man who normally appeared unflappable. But he was obviously affected by these losses.

He and his wife have been on the fringes of the church for as long as a I can remember: their kids were part of our kids programs, they attended concerts and special events, they probably gave money when the church was hurting financially a while ago, they show up at all fund raisers, they both have shown an openness to the things of faith. But they don’t attend worship.

I realized that when I think church growth, I think of people like this. I am not actually thinking about statistical increases and rate of growth possibilities. In the end, I am concerned with how I can help people like this couple make their faith more a part of their lives. Or I think of some of the family members who attended funerals, wondering how we as a church can somehow become more responsive to their needs. Or I wonder how we can atone for the stupidities of our church past that prevents some people from becoming more involved.

I don’t actually want a bigger church—I want a church that these people a part of it. Sure, that likely means that our churches will grow. But it isn’t the growth that I want. I probably won’t even know the percentage increase—and wouldn’t care if someone told me. I am concerned about specific people, some of whom I know and many of whom I don’t yet know. And so I don’t think much about church growth.

I do think a lot about ministry, how I look after the people I have been called to shepherd and how we as a church minister to the people we see every day. We already have a significant relationship with these people and many of them look to us for spiritual support. I want to provide them with more of the love and grace that God has for them. That is my version of church growth.

May the peace of God be with you.

PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING THE CHURCH

For the second time in two days, I am sitting with a group of believers. We come from different congregations, different denominations, different faith experiences. Some of are “professional” believers—pastors and retired pastors. We all live in the same geographical area, shop at the same stores, complain about the same inconveniences of living in a small community.

And we all share a common allegiance to God through Christ. True, we don’t express that allegiance in the same way. Some of us are part of the older liturgical denominations. Others are part of less liturgical denominations that broke from the others years ago. Some of us have a fairly conservative understanding of the faith while others push the theological boundaries. We sometimes bump up against those differences as we meet together.

But we do meet together. We recognize something that goes beyond our differences, a unifying commitment that makes the differences less important than the reality of our shared faith. True, we probably couldn’t develop a statement of faith that we could all agree to—but we can and do worship together happily and reverently.

We might not be too concerned with doctrines that are vitally important to others—but we can and do work together to discover ways to effectively give witness to the faith that we share. We recently began a process that will hopefully give us a better ministry to the poverty in our area.

We all have different approaches and emphasis in our ministries. Some are deeply involved in social issues; some are stressing environmental issues; some are developing ways of reaching the community more effectively. We share and discuss and celebrate our diverse ministries and as much as possible for over-committed people living in rural areas, we support each other’s efforts.

I like these times when the wider church comes together. As well as enabling us as believers and congregations to support each other, we are also making a powerful statement to the rest of the community. Rather than appearing to the community as a bunch of competing organizations trying to outdo each other, we are showing that even though we attend different worship on Sunday, we have a lot in common and we express that commonality as we work and share and fellowship and study and worship together.

And that is as it should be. I grew up in the era when denominations and even congregations within the same denomination were pretty sure that no one else knew the truth. We were often treated to discussions of why everyone else was wrong and we were right. Even though I was immersed in that culture, I never felt comfortable with it—something didn’t seem right.

And I eventually discovered what was wrong. No matter which form of worship; which denominational path; which theological line, we are all trying to develop and express our faith in God through Jesus Christ. The fact that my most comfortable expression of that is in the tradition I follow doesn’t negate the validity of another person’s tradition. It actually says more about the diversity of humanity.

And when the diverse expressions of the faith actually get along with each other, it makes a powerful statement about God’s love and our commitment. We are called to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13.34-35) and if we can do that in the face of historical, theological, doctrinal and denominational differences, we effectively show the world that Christ is bigger than any of us and can actually change us. When our group of believers gets together for an ecumenical council meeting or when we meet for our two annual ecumenical Bible studies or when we clergy share a retreat day, we are making the love of God real and concrete and visible both to ourselves and to the world.

And when the world outside the faith sees us actually doing what we are supposed to be doing, it opens doors. Our ecumenical gatherings may not bring anyone into the faith but they will definitely create an atmosphere that says to people that we have something worthwhile—and whether they check it out at the brick building by the traffic lights or the wooden one by the hospital or the historic one “downtown”, they are going to discover something that will help them like it helps us.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO FUNERALS

One of the pastorates I serve is in the midst of their winter shutdown. An aging congregation combine with old energy inefficient buildings and possible winter driving conditions is such a way as to suggest that I should have some extra time to myself in the winter. We have modified the winter plan just a bit and have one service a month but basically, we are closed for business for the first three months of the year.

Except that when it comes to anything involving people, it is pretty much impossible to be closed for business. The people who form the churches and the people who live in the communities served by the churches still require ministry. They get sick, have operations, get down, need a coffee, want to get married. They also die. And many of them want a representative of God available to help them deal with the realities of life.

So, I minister. One week recently, that ministry during the shutdown involved two funerals. Fortunately, they were on separate days. One funeral is a lot of work but two pretty much wipes out the week—nothing else gets done. So, when I got the notice about the first one, I was a bit frustrated, since I had plans for the week and wasn’t actually supposed to be working for that church anyway. But I am the pastor and so I went to see the family. In the process of the visit to plan the funeral, I discovered that here had been a another death—this in the family of the partner of the person I was meeting with.

That death had just occurred and so no one knew anything about arrangements or plans—but I, as the all knowing pastor of rural congregations, I knew that I would likely end up getting a call about that funeral as well. There are not a lot of options open to families in small communities when it comes to someone to conduct a funeral. We finished the planning session and I had prayer with the family, including a prayer for the family of the second person and headed home, pretty sure that before the end of the day, I would get another call.

When it came, I made my plans to visit the family, which was a bit complicated because the visit had to be arranged around my other worship services and between two winter storms. Having accomplished the visit, we made plans and I prayed and left, feeling sorry for myself for all the extra work this week would have because of the two funerals. I was also doing some major recalculating of my week so that I could get everything done that needed to be done. That recalculating involved cancelling my attendance at a meeting later in the week—given my dislike of meetings, that wasn’t a major inconvenience.

While I was somewhat upset with the extra work, I didn’t focus on that too much once I got a plan for the week developed. After that, I began to think more about the connections between the two funerals and all the people who would be affected by both. Families, friends, community members were all involved because of the tangled relationships that are a basic part of rural life. I anticipated seeing many of the same people at both services, which meant that I had to make sure that the services were different but offered the same level of hope and comfort that I try to bring to a funeral service.

Normally, funerals are separated by enough time that if I use the same Scriptures or the same reference, it isn’t a problem. But with the services following each other so closely and so many attending both, I had to work a bit harder to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself—I wanted people to have a sense that the service was designed for them and their needs and wasn’t just something I cut and pasted together.

Part of the reason I like rural living is the dense web of connections linking people. Sometimes, I don’t discover the connections until I get involved in ministry with the people. That network is a powerful part of rural living—and if it means that planning two funerals back to back is a bit more difficult, I will accept the difficulty because of the blessings that network provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

I need some surgery sometime in the near future. While it is fairly serious surgery, it is important because it will prevent even more serious stuff down the road. After thought and prayer and some consultation, it just makes sense to me to go ahead with the process.

However, committing to that process also commits me to another process, one that I am normally involved with on the other side. I need to inform and involve my church people. Normally, I am the one church people inform and involve—they want my prayers, my pastoral concern, my connection with God. I am happy to be involved in their process. My giftedness, my calling and my temperament enables me to support them and do what I can to help them through the process. Most of the people I have provided pastoral care for through their process have seemed to be appreciative.

But approaching the whole thing from the other side—well, that is and has been and will be a huge shift for me. I haven’t actually had to deal with medical issues in my ministry. The only time I have been hospitalized was for kidney stones and that occurred between public ministry activities and so I didn’t miss anything. For this surgery, I will be out for at least a month, which means that I have to tell people so they can make arrangements.

My introverted inclination was to simply forget about telling people and have my wife call the deacons the day of surgery and tell them I won’t be there for a while. Aside from the fact that my wife simply wouldn’t assist my fantasy, that really wouldn’t be a very good way to deal with things.

I teach, preach and encourage Christian community and sharing. I seek to have people involved with each other as an expression of their faith. I want people to know that faith needs to involve us with other people so that we can both give and receive the love and grace of God through each other. For me to follow my introverted fantasy process would be hypocritical at best and ministry destroying at worst.

So, pushing the all too tempting fantasy out of my mind, I set about informing people. I had a meeting scheduled with the church leadership before I knew about the surgery so that became the first place to announce what was coming. I didn’t swear them to secrecy and released them to tell others in the church what was coming. I think I was secretly hoping that the message would quickly travel through the church the way most things do.

That didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way I wanted or as fast as I wanted. I faced a congregation on Sunday made up of people who knew and people who didn’t. Since the surgery is coming soon but not that soon, I chose not to make an announcement from the pulpit—that will come when I know dates and so on. But I did find myself telling individuals as the opportunity arose during the potluck that followed the worship.

I have spent most of my life on the other side of this part of ministry and now I have to learn how to receive what I have been giving. I could continue the role of pastor and say that it is good for the church to learn how to minister to the pastor—and that is a good thing. But the deeper reality is that I need to learn more about how to be ministered to. I haven’t done that well over the years. Being an introvert means that I tend to keep to myself and be somewhat self-sufficient. I have had times when others have ministered to me and they have been very important and valuable—but overall, I am much more comfortable providing the ministry.

So, the coming surgery will not only take care of a medical problem but will be another step in the more significant learning process that is helping an introvert who encourages community to experience the fullness of Christian community. I really do want and value the prayers and concerns and support of my Christian community—I just don’t like telling people that I need their prayers and concerns and support. Like all of us, I have a lot to learn about the fullness of my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAMILIES

I have been in ministry for over 40 years. I have the sermon pile, the pastoral weight gain and the grey hair to prove all that. But there are a great many people who don’t seem to understand the full implications of 40+ years of ministry. Either they think that clergy are the most sheltered people in the world or we are the most unobservant and unintelligent people around.

I say this because there are a great many people both inside and outside the church who feel it necessary to clue me in on things that they think will surprise me, upset me or shock me. It is not uncommon, for example, for someone to drag me aside to give me vital information about the family I am working with during funeral planning. In the corner, speaking quietly, they inform me that there are tensions within the family that might make the whole funeral difficult. Or the wedding planning process that someone feels they need to talk to me about because someone won’t like it if someone else is involved.

Then there are the shocking moral issues that people feel they need to bring to me, perhaps thinking that I need to be warned so that I don’t pass out when I discover that the couple I am going to marry are already living together and have a child or that the older gentleman I am conducting the funeral for was an alcoholic. Or perhaps they feel I need to know that the child of one of the church members is actually gay and that is causing some problems in the family.

I listen to all these insights and revelations and nod pastorally. But inside, I have to confess that I am thinking something like, “Do you actually think I am that stupid/naive/out of touch?” I am a pastor, which means that I know almost as much about people and their families as the village gossip—and I gained my knowledge legitimately and know what is true and what is made up. I am also because of my training, my experience and my nature, as capable social observer. I am rarely surprised and even when I am, can actually see the reality of the new revelation pretty quickly.

It is actually a major part of my calling to understand and know people. I think it is also a major part of my calling to know and understand and accept the realities that I am working with. People are people and families are families. We all have good and bad, positive and negative, inspiring and sordid mixed together in a tangled and confusing mess that makes us what we are. To find a family where some members are at odds with each other isn’t a surprise to a pastor—actually, the surprise is finding a family where that isn’t true.

As I have thought about this, I think that part of the problem lies with clergy. Some clergy have been and perhaps are guilty of pretending that the darker side of life is beyond them. As a body, we have perhaps been too eager to condemn the failings in individuals and families. Rather than accept and work with the realities, we have condemned, which has caused people to try to hide things and cover them over. But that isn’t a very effective way of dealing with the negatives of life.

As a pastor, my job isn’t to encourage people to hide stuff from themselves, others and me. I see my job as helping people accept their reality as a first step towards dealing with it. If I can accept their reality, it helps them accept their reality—and if I can accept their reality and them, maybe they can find the courage and insight to deal with the painful darker stuff that they, like everyone has. My model for this, of course, is Jesus who saw the darkest and deepest and most hidden realities in every life and still loved and accepted and offered the fullness of his love and grace. He did get somewhat testy with all those trying to put on a false front but for the rest, he knew, accepted and loved.

So, I listen to all the revelations that a delicate pastoral personality could never expect, thank the revealer and keep on doing what I always do—helping people discover God’s love and grace no matter what their reality is.

May the peace of God be with you.

RUSH HOUR

The other day, I was heading out in the car to go see someone in the church. I came to the stop sign at the end of our side street and had to wait before I could turn. That isn’t uncommon—about half the time, there is a car coming and I have to wait. But this time, well, there must have been at least half a dozen cars coming from both directions. It felt like I waited hours and hours to get a clear stretch so I could pull out. I mentally joked about it being rush hour in town.

But then I visited our daughter in the big city. We took a train into the city for a day trip. Part of the route parallels some of the major roads into the city. We went into the city after the morning rush but left just as the rush home was building. The train car we took going home was packed and the roadways were also packed. This was the real rush hour—when the train car has more people than our village, it is crowded. I know that there are more people in our town than there were in the train car but allow me my country mouse exaggeration.

I enjoyed our time on the city. There are so many things to do and see and experience. I could eat samosas, eat lunch in a revolving restaurant hundreds of feet in the air, visit a waterfall and an huge shopping mall within minutes of each other. I could listen to English, French, Hindi, Spanish and who knows how many languages. The options are endless and when I visit, I like to enjoy them—our town hasn’t seen samosas in ages and our restaurants are fantastic but they don’t revolve.

But after I visit, I am going to come back home to our small town, settle back in and still complain about having to wait for six cars before I can pull out of our side street. For better or worse, I am a country mouse. I like where I live. I am not tied totally to any one location but I just prefer places where rush hour involves a whole lot less people than what I see when I visit the city.

It isn’t that I dislike cities. I have spend time in a lot of cities, significant time occasionally. I like exploring cities, especially in the days when my knees allowed me to walk. I love the possibilities in the city and whenever I am in a city, I quickly discover places where I can indulge in treats. I can tell you where to find great coffee in Nairobi; a great curry buffet in Toronto, fantastic street food in Ottawa, some tremendous beaches in Mombasa, a entertaining open top bus tour of Vancouver, a middle of the road evangelical church in Louisville—I have discovered and enjoyed all this in my travels.

I look forward to time in a city and try to experience it to the full and bring home the pictures to prove it. But in the end, I am going to come home and look at the pictures and remember the coffee and all the rest as I sit in my living room in our small rural community. I might sit there planning my next trip but I know I am going to always end up here or somewhere like here.

And that is because in the end, I know who I am and what works for me. I prefer the slower and less crowded spaces when it comes to a place to call home. That is part of my nature and part of the reality of who I am. I like rural spaces, I like small churches, I am most at home with fewer people. I might want samosas and revolving restaurants now and then but in the end, I am going to come back to a smaller, slower place where rush hour involves six cars probably driven by people I know and have spent time with or who I have at least seen at the store or market or post office.

This isn’t everyone’s reality but it is mine and I learned a long time ago that I can live my choices without knocking someone else’s choices. This isn’t an anti-city rant—it is a statement of who I am and nothing more.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

I am part of the cell phone revolution—we don’t have a landline in our home. That has several implications, one of which is that my name no longer appears in a phone book. As a pastor, that means in order for people to contact me, I have to be very liberal passing our my business cards, as well as making sure that my number is published every week in the church bulletin. I am not hard to get a hold of, at least within my ministry circle.

Recently, though, I discovered that my ministry circle is much bigger than I thought. I got a call from an acquaintance, someone we used to live near. We had a good relationship, comfortable enough to pass some time when we met but nothing deep or significant. The neighbours knew I was a pastor—they may even have showed up at a funeral or two I conducted. I knew that like many people they didn’t have any real church connection. When we moved to another house, we didn’t see each other all that much but when we did, we would pass some time and move on.

The phone call, though, was an overt request for pastoral care. A death is imminent and the caller wanted me to be involved in the process. He explained how he got my number, mentioning a third person whose name I didn’t actually recognize at first gave him the number. When I finally remembered who the other person was, I realized that my connection was through another funeral for a family member—and I may have given him a card. Like the caller, this person has no real church connection other than a familial connection. But even after a year or more, he had retained my card and number and was quite happy to pass it along to his friend who needed some help.

It isn’t that there are no other clergy around. The person who passed on the phone number has a tentative connection with a church that has a pastor. The caller likely knows another clergy person personally since they are close to the same age and grew up in the same area. All the church in our town have landlines and therefore are listed in the phone book.

But the caller wanted to connect with me. It suggests to me that on some deep level, I am his pastor. I doubt if he would define the relationship that way but essentially, that is the reality. He needs a pastor—he finds my number so that he can talk to his pastor. The fact that he has never been in a worship service in any church I have pastored aside from a funeral isn’t an issue. He needs a pastor and I am his pastor.

My pastoral ministry extends well beyond the churches I serve. And it is based on a whole lot more than the activities I get paid to engage in. I am his pastor likely because of the nature of the relationship we had when we were neighbours and because of some ministry I provided to another neighbour, who also didn’t and doesn’t have any other church connection.

I realized again that believers really are never off duty. My faith is part of my being and its reality is always visible. And because of that, I am always a witness. Sometimes, as in the case of this called, my witness is positive, setting the stage for a deeper ministry when it is needed. But there is the very real possibility that some of the phone calls I don’t get are a result of a negative witness that I have shown some person along the way, a negative witness that speaks not only about how my ministry has been perceived but also about how the God I claim to follow has been perceived. I might be a part-time pastor for small congregations but I am a full time witness to a very large circle of people, a circle whose boundaries I will probably never know.

Fortunately, God is aware of the boundaries of that circle and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can and does enable one person to give another person a phone number so that they can contact me—and the same Spirit will guide my ministry with the called, as long as I am willing to listen to the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

PEER PRESSURE

For most of my working life, I have been a pastor serving small, rural churches. I have basically lived and worked in the same geographic area for over 35 years so I have deep connections in many of the area churches and communities. Because I am a pastor and because this is a somewhat traditional area, I am still one of the first people contacted when life gets difficult for the people in the church and often for the community as well.

When I was a new pastor, this was difficult. I often found myself sitting with families as they struggled with the death of a loved one, a devastating medical diagnosis, a crushing family break up. My training provided suggestions and hints on how to help people in these situations but my very limited experience kept getting in the way. I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage in those first years—and since I still live in the area, I would likely know if there were serious messes as a result of my early pastoral work.

Having been out of pastoral ministry for a bit while I worked in Kenya, I came back to a somewhat different pastoral experience. I was called to a pastorate I had served before. It is rural, somewhat traditional and I know everyone—and some of them, I have known since the day I preached my first sermon in those churches over 35 years ago. I am still one of the first calls made when there is a disruption in life.

But these days, I am not the young pastor sitting with the children of older people. I am often sitting with the children of those now departed older people—but they are my friends. More and more often, I am sitting with the families of one of my friends, someone who is near my age and whom I have known forever, or at least it feels that way at the time. My training still helps—I have kept up and upgraded and am not working from a 40 year old data base. My experience level has grown—I like to think that I have used my time in ministry to develop my skills and abilities and enhance my overall ministry.

But these days, I am still sitting with friends while we deal with the death of someone who was also my friend. I get called because I am the pastor—but also because I am a friend. And more and more often, it is the friendship that leads to the call, not so much the pastoral side of the relationship. I am a friend who happens to be the pastor.

All of us involved recognize that I come into the situation wearing two very different hats. I am the pastor, tasked with helping others deal with the effects and feelings of whatever we are dealing with—but I am also a friend who has my own relationship and my own stuff to deal with. As I said to one person recently, this job was a whole lot easier back when I didn’t know people so well.

On the whole, I think my long term relationships with people have made my ministry stronger and more effective. I can use that knowledge to help the church look at specific ideas and processes and so on that are more closely tied to their needs, possibilities and abilities. But it also means that I have a lot more of my own feelings to deal with. Not only do I have to design a funeral service to help the family, but also I have to find ways to work through my own grief and feelings, without taking away my effectiveness in helping others deal with the issues.

I need to be honest with myself and my congregations about my experience, while at the same time recognizing that I have been called to help them. My relationship with people is important and valuable and deep—but that means I have to make sure that deal with my stuff appropriately so that I can carry out my ministry. I am working with my peer group these days and we are all seeking to find out how our common faith and relationship expresses itself when life gets messy.

May the peace of God be with you.