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.

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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 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.

SAD NEWS

In that past couple of weeks, the news from our denominational office has included obituaries of two pastors. Both of them were second career pastors, people who had sensed God’s calling later in their lives and were willing to answer that call. Both of them attended the seminary where I was teaching at the time and both were in my classes so I knew them fairly well.

There are not the first students from my teaching days to have died. Several students from my times teaching in Kenya have died—but given the realities of life in Kenya, those deaths, while sad, were not a total surprise. There have even been some students from my time teaching in Canada. A couple of students died as a result of existing medical conditions and so again, their death, although sad, were not unexpected.

These last two, however, were a bit harder for me to process. Both were older and their death were ultimately the result of accumulating enough years that their bodies simply wore out. What makes these more difficult is that neither student was that much older that I am—well, one was a fair bit older but the other was much closer to my age than I realized.

I am saddened by their deaths. They were students but because of the nature of my teaching style and the relatively small size of the clergy community in our denomination, they were also friends. I didn’t see either of them all that much beyond denominational events but we could and did talk and share and were concerned with each other’s lives and ministry. It is sad to think that I won’t see either of them again this side of eternity.

But their deaths also opened a door that I have pretty much been avoiding. I am getting older. Normally, I am not overly conscious of being 66 years old, unless of course it is one of those days when my much older knees are protesting and complaining. I am not sure exactly what age I perceive myself but it is definitely younger than 66. But as I was reading the obituary of the former student who was pretty close to my age, I realized that being 66 has some serious implications. I am in pretty good health, according to my personal observations and my GP’s evaluations, but the basic statistical reality is that I am closer to my death date than I am to my birth date. And since the latest scientific research suggests that the upper limit of human aging is about 120, by that most optimistic standard, I have lived well over half my life.

I deal with death as a regular part of my work. The pastor is one of the first people called in rural areas when death occurs. But most of the time, there is a professional wall between me and the death. I am concerned with helping the people I pastor work through their trauma and grief and so on. Without question, some of these deaths touch me and affect me—my professionalism isn’t something I use as a defence against my own grief.

But these two students dying of essentially age related causes at an age that I can identify with because of its proximity to my age—well, I really can’t professionalize that. To start with, I am not the pastor in either of those situations. I am just one of the many who knew them and who grieves their loss. And without the professional focus to distract me, I look at their loss more personally—and I also recognize the implications of their deaths for me and my context.

Their deaths are sad—I will miss them. Their deaths also point out to me that I am getting up there and could be closer to my own end that I want to realize. But in the end, I really can’t live well if I pay too much attention to the statistical realities that come with my present age. I know that I will die some day. I do take care physically—eating sort of right, sleeping enough, doing some exercise. But I am not really interested in living with the fear or dread of my death. The reminders of the potential that my former students death’s brought are real—but I think that in the end, I decided a long time ago to live until I die, without too much worry about when and how that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

ACORNS AND OAK TREES

My working chair is situated in the living room in a perfect spot. I can see the whole living room and the corridor that leads to the bedrooms and kitchen so I can keep track of what everyone else in the house is doing. That is important because the dog often parks himself there when it is time to go outside. The chair also gives me a great view outside allowing me to see trees, part of the road and some of our neighbours’ houses. That is important because my creative process involved a lot of staring out the window, waiting for the various neurons in my brain to fire and make connections so that the sermon or Bible study or blog post can take shape.

But the staring out the window can also be an end in itself. I really like trees and without moving from my work chair, I can see several impressive trees: a old oak, a mature maple, a couple of adolescent maples and a struggling oak sapling growing in absolutely the wrong place. Both this small oak and one of the adolescent maples are growing within inches of the house foundation and should probably be removed before they cause damage to the house and the walkways. I probably won’t remove them because I don’t own the house and an not responsible for that stuff, which is great since cutting trees is hard for me.

My bigger concern in the huge oak that fills about a third of the window view. This ancient tree must be 50 feet high and its foliage circle is likely that big around. One of the major branches hangs over the driveway and is growing longer and therefore closer to the day when I need to decide to trim it to protect the paint on my car when I drive under it. Right now, the branches are filled with nearly mature acorns which will start dropping any time in the next few weeks, to the delight of the squirrels and deer, both of whom will use them to fatten up for the long cold winter that we might have this year.

But in spite of its size and fruitfulness, all is not well with this tree. From where I sit, a significant portion of the branches are bare, dead sticks. They haven’t somehow managed to lose their leaves early—they haven’t had leaves for several years now. In spite of the heavy leaf cover and bumper crop of acorns, this particular tree is dying.

I am not a tree health expert and so I can’t say for sure but my guess, based on the size of the tree, is that it is dying of old age. It will keep going for many more years but each year, fewer and fewer branches will produce leaves and more and more of them will stand starkly bare against the sky. In a few years, the dead branches will start breaking off as a result of rot encountering too much wind or snow. The broken branch stubs will provide access to insects and other attackers which will speed the dying process. Its days are numbered—its death isn’t going to be immediate but it is inevitable. I probably won’t live here long enough to see its ultimate demise because trees like this live a long time and die a long death and I will likely move away in retirement long before its end.

So, the tree is dying. But in the process, it is still doing its tree thing. It produces leaves, produces oxygen, filters the air, grows acorns to feel local wildlife and perpetuate the species (this tree is most likely the parent of the poorly place baby oak in front of the house). It provides me with a soothing and even inspiring target for my “don’t know what to write starting into space”—being vaguely aware of the tree during the staring seems to be more productive than staring at the end of the living room or the dog.

The oak is dying—but it is still living, still doing its tree thing as best it can. There may be barren, soon to fall branches but there are also leaves, acorns and branches that are still growing. It will live until it dies, doing the best it can until it can’t do any more—and even then, a dead oak tree provides lots of great stuff for lots of great purposes. I am not sure that there is a better summary of a good life and death than that.

May the peace of God be with you.