ANONYMOUS

I am not particularly surprised by what the guy in my office is saying. He and I have disagreed on many aspects of my ministry since I began working for the church. He doesn’t like some of what I am preaching and teaching. But the reason for this particular visit grows out of a complicated situation that I have been providing pastoral care for. He doesn’t know the whole story and feels he should. Furthermore, he says, there are a lot of people in the church who feel the same way. “They” are saying that I am a problem and that I am going to cause serious harm to the church. “They” are talking to him because he stands for right and I don’t.

I have always had a very strong response to anonymous reports. On the one hand, I do like knowing what “they” are saying. Any organization, including the church, has a background level of discontent that generally doesn’t often become serious enough that people feel obligated to take a stand but it serious enough that they talk about it, as long as “they” don’t have to become identified with the talk. Part of my pastoral responsibility to the church is being aware of this background discontent. That generally only happens when someone tells me what “they” are saying. Sometimes, people tell me what “they” are saying as a favour because I need to know and sometimes, as in this particular situation, because the person speaking somehow hopes that what “they” are saying will reinforce their comments. Whatever the reason, I think it is good for me as pastor to know what “they” are saying.

However, I am also very aware of the reality that whatever “they” are saying isn’t important enough for them to take any real risk. “They” generally want to be able to complain without dealing with the responsibility that comes from taking a stand. Comments like this may sound serious and may even have a serious base but in truth, when “they” lack the conviction or courage to make their comments openly, I have difficulty taking them seriously and even more difficulty basing my actions on what “they” are saying.

I am aware that there are some times when being anonymous is necessary to protect the life of someone. I can understand that and approve of that. But in general, anonymous comments, no matter how strong or how pointed or how serious don’t overly affect my decisions. If I hear that “they” are upset by the new tie that my daughter gave me for my birthday, I am not going to stop wearing it.

So, back to the session we began this post with. When the guy told me that there were others who agreed with him and that “they” were equally upset with me, I responded in the way I learned a long time ago. I told him that I don’t respond to anonymous comments made by “they”. If “they” had something they think I needed to hear, “they” needed to come to me personally. If and when “they” came to see me, we could and would talk about their concerns openly and directly. But until then, I would listen to his complaints and respond directly to his concerns but I would neither listen to nor respond to any comments from the anonymous “they”, no matter how many of them he claimed there were.

Eventually, “they” showed up in my office. “They” consisted of this guy’s wife, who had already made it clear that she agreed with her husband. There were no other “theys”, or at least there were no other “theys” concerned enough to take a public stand. And if “they” were not willing to stand openly for what they were saying, I have no obligation to take them seriously.

Being anonymous allows too many people to say too much too often without having to be responsible. Hiding behind anything or anyone means that I don’t really have much invested in my stance—I have courage enough to say it anonymously but not enough courage to say it in my openly. But if I am not willing to say it openly, how committed can I really be to what I am thinking and saying?

May the peace of God be with you.

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RIGHT AND WRONG

I really enjoy the current emphasis in police TV shows and movies that puts lots of emphasis on using scientific, psychological and sociological input when it comes to solving crimes. I know enough about all those areas to know that in real life, things simply don’t happen that fast nor that easily but since it is TV and movies, I really don’t care—I am watching it for diversion, not education.

I am also interested in the way writers are seeking to deal with the realities of crime. In the old days of black and white TV, crime shows were simple: the bad guys were really bad and the good guys were really good. We all wanted the bad guys caught and we cheered for the good guys. These days, well, everyone is troubled and conflicted and crimes are generally committed by people who we would like to have coffee with, at least on the days when they aren’t going to commit some horrendous crime.

One show I was watching went even deeper to spend some time dealing with the confusing area of motivation. The murderer had committed several murders and as she was being interviewed, she revealed that she had no choice—the murders were the only way she could ensure that her daughter won the competition she was involved in. It was her duty as a parent to help her child.

Now, on some levels, I rebel at that woman’s explanation but on some other levels, what she is saying makes perfect sense. And even more, it strikes me that it is a very modern approach to a very old problem. Well, technically, it is a post-modern approach to an old problem.

Our behaviour is based on our underlying beliefs, our philosophy of life or our theology or however we describe the stuff underneath everything that defines reality and provides us with a sense of direction and morality and right and wrong. Our western culture used to have a fairly clear, dominant underlying foundation based loosely on the Judeo-Christian tradition with some bits and pieces added or subtracted for convenience. These days, we have replaced that with a variety of underlying ideas and philosophies, some of which make a bit of sense and some of which conflict with others. Taken all together, though, it means that we in the west really don’t speak the same ethical language anymore and even worse, we generally don’t want to understand another standard.

The bottom line is that right and wrong have become something of a popularity contest. If we can get enough people to support our particular approach to right and wrong, it becomes the norm. If we know how to use social media well enough to create a strong public response that will scare politicians enough, we can even create legislation that will give some serious legitimacy to our approach.

I am not going to complete this post by saying that we need to get back to the good old foundation that worked so well in the past. The most obvious problem is that the Judeo-Christian foundation didn’t work all that well. Our past is filled with injustice: the theft of native land, enslavement of non-whites, discrimination against out of favour faith expressions, prejudice of all kinds and shapes, rules and regulations that favoured some and harmed others. Our traditional sense of right and wrong was just as distorted and rotten as the present system of anything can be justified—in the end, it only works for some people some of the time.

Definitions of right and wrong come and go. Foundational systems rise and fall. The essential problem is that they are all flawed because of the fact that in the end, we are all selfish and self-centered individuals who think that we should have the freedom to do what we want while at the same time being able to make sure everyone else does what we want.

The essential selfishness is our basic human problem and it is what the Bible calls sin. We tend to think of sin as a list of right and wrong things—but those are only symptoms of the essential problem which is our selfishness. No system has even been developed that can really deal with that problem simply because those devising the systems are all selfish at heart themselves.

The problem isn’t the current philosophical foundation and the answer isn’t going back to an older one—the problem is the reality of our human nature and that takes something more significant to change, which we will look at in another post.

May the peace of God be with you.

SUMMER SLUMP

I have been a bit concerned these last few days about my mental state. Work has become harder and harder: after writing two sermons this week, I sat down to work on a short devotional for an upcoming nursing service and had nothing. I puttered for about an hour, writing out the order of service, finding a suitable text for the service, trying to develop an idea but nothing was coming. And to make matters worse, the solitaire game that normally helps me think picked this day to present me with essentially unwinnable games.

I coupled that with my general lethargy—I am not overly interested in doing much these days. The thought of moving from the chair is quickly banished by the realization that if I sit just a bit longer, I just might be able to fall asleep.

My thinking eventually caught up with my symptoms and I began to wonder if I had somehow slipped into a depression. Normally, I am pretty vigilant and have a pretty good idea when I am moving in that direction and as well, a pretty good idea why I am moving that way. But I don’t always catch myself and so on some levels, I was beginning to worry that I was slipping into a depression. Part of me was concerned but another part of me just wanted to click on another Youtube video that I might end up sleeping through.

The part of me that is a bit more mature did manage to keep working and I have decided that although depression is a possibility, it is more likely that I am suffering from a basic summer slump. It has been hot, humid and not overly busy these last couple of weeks. The heat and humidity keep me from doing a lot outside and the not overly busy allows me to realize that I have been pushing myself since the beginning of April. With some breathing space in my schedule, I am realizing how little breathing space I have had since then.

I also realized that part of the not wanting to do anything is a result of the fact that I have two weeks of vacation coming pretty quickly. We will attend a family reunion, have some time with two of our children and their families and I won’t have to write a sermon for two weeks. The anticipation is likely working away somewhere in my mind, suggesting that maybe since the break is coming, we might just as well start early.

So, the bottom line is that I am not depressed and am not likely getting close to a depression. I am tired, I need a vacation and the heat and humidity make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. I suspect that if I am not careful this naturally occurring summer slump could turn into a depression so I have to keep an eye on things. Managing a pre-vacation slump is much easier than managing a depression, though.

Because it is hot and humid, I am not much interested in doing a lot of physical stuff—but instead of mindlessly watching videos or TV, I have been reading some of the books I have bought with the gift cards I have accumulated. It is amazing what great stuff is available on Ebook sites at sale prices.

I make an effort to move, even when it is hot and humid. The lawn needs to be mowed, the planter with my lettuce and tomato plant need weeding and watering, the mail needs to be picked up, and the rotten board on the deck does need to be replaced. I also need to give some thought into how I am going to turn a couple of pieces of rescued birch firewood into candle holders for our Advent celebration this year, although it is a bit hard to think of Advent when it is so hot. And of course, the vacation is coming. I can deal with the stuff I need to do before that—it will get done, even the reluctant nursing home service.

Until then, I will do what I need to do, relax when I have the opportunity, enjoy the books, survive the heat and plan for the vacation. I am in an understandable slump, not a worrying depression. And now, I have to move because the lawn needs to be mowed before it gets too hot.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO BASICS?

It’s summer time. At worship, we have an ever shifting congregation because of summer travel. Some travel to our area and join us for worship while others travel away from our area and are therefore absent from our services. A few are involved in seasonal activities that involve commitments on Sunday and there are a few who simply decide to take the summer off. The end result is that most of the time, summer feels like a slower, less hectic and less stressed time in the church.

Summer provides time for a couple of things for me as a pastor. The first is that I get to slow down a bit myself and recover some of the overtime hours that I accumulate during more active times in the church cycle. I am actually getting pretty good at that—I rarely feel guilty enough to find work to do and can even relax a bit during these hours.

And the second thing I get to do is slow down and do some thinking and examining and planning. Some of it is very work focused—I have time to look at what I will be preaching on in the fall and do a bit of research on the coming Bible study topics. I can and do try to see the bigger picture of the church, where we are and where God is trying to lead us. It is much easier to do this sort of thing when there isn’t the pressure of the next meeting or sermon or study.

Some of the thinking and examining and planning focuses on my personal choices: when do we take vacation and what do we do? I might actually find the time to take that long delayed trip to the city to replace my ailing e-reader. And there just might be time to replace the rotten board on the deck.

And some of my thinking concerns personal directions: when do I retire? Do I continue working on this blog? If we do actually retire someday, where do we want to live? Can I actually live without having to do at least one sermon every week?

This last category of questions is the most difficult and probably most important in many ways. While I have already passed the socially accepted age for retirement, I am still working and not actively planning a retirement date. But the time is coming. I realize that I am tired—not physically tired and not emotionally tired so much as vocationally tired. Ministry, at least the way I have practised it, is demanding. It takes a lot of energy to do the work that I believe God has called me to do.

I work closely with people in lots of different life situations. I work hard at finding the messages from God for the people I have been called to serve. I take seriously my role as pastor and teacher. I spend a lot of time with a lot of people in contexts as diverse as potluck picnics and grief counselling. And I personally do all this as an introvert, which I am sure must add another layer of complexity to the equation.

As a result, some of my summer time thinking these days has focused on some important and basic “why” questions: Why keep working? Why keep writing a blog? Why mow the lawn? (Well, maybe not that one). The thinking and examining process has been interesting and valuable, although the only answer I have come up with so far is “because”, which is really a non-answer that suggests I don’t yet have any real reason for making big changes like retiring from work or blogging just yet.

And that is probably the best I am going to get during this spell of thinking and examining. I am vocationally tired but I don’t think I have finished the work I have been called to do where I am now. Some days, I am not overly interested in writing a blog but overall, I still like writing and eventually I discover something that interests me enough to write about. And the thought of lots and lots of free time is appealing but not quite appealing enough just yet to overcome the need to follow the calling that God has given me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT HAVE I ACCOMPLISHED?

At the beginning of the year, I began working on a project in my shop. We needed some more storage space and decided that the need would be met if I built a cabinet and shelf unit similar to the china cabinet and hutch I built a few years ago. The new unit needed to be slightly smaller and a bit different in design but they would match in terms of basic design, wood selection and finish. We got really lucky when the knotty pine I planned on using was on sale at a nearby building supply store.

The project has been moving along. It hasn’t been as fast as I would like. I still have to work and that limits my time for woodworking. I can’t do sawing or sanding in the house, which means those particular jobs can only be done with it is nice enough outside. The requirements for free time and relatively comfortable outside weather in Nova Scotia in the winter happening at the same time mean that I don’t get at the project as often as I would like and the finishing date keeps getting shifted forward.

But the project is moving along. The basic structures are formed, a lot of the sanding is done and there are just a few more assembly steps necessary before I can finish the whole thing. Even though I don’t care much for the final sanding and varnishing process, I can see that I will get the work done. I can also see just how much progress I have made along the way—I have moved from a pile of boards on the basement floor to a pretty much finished project that will soon become a finished and functional part of our household.

There are times when I wish the success of my ministry was as easy to evaluate. But the reality I live with is that much of what I do for ministry isn’t all that easy to evaluate, especially if I am looking at and for long term results. Sure, I can relatively easily gage how well a sermon went over—I just have to count the number of people awake when I finish. Evaluating a Bible study session is relatively simple—I look at how far I got or didn’t get in my lesson plan.

But figuring out how that sermon fits into the long term health of the individuals and the church or seeing how that Bible study session affects the church three years from now—that is much more difficult. In fact, it actually might be pretty much impossible. When I cut a board in the workshop, I can pretty much tell immediately if it will work or not. But when I finish a sermon, who really knows what the effects will be?

Even the traditional measures of evaluating ministry really don’t give a lot of insight into the effectiveness of ministry. Traditionally, churches and leadership have used the numerical growth of the congregation and the increase in giving as measuring sticks—what some call the “nickels and noses” evaluation. But all that says in the end is that we have more or less people and money that when we started.

I believe in evaluation processes and have lots of measuring tools that I use in my ministry but I have realized that in the end, most of what I do will ultimately be evaluated by God, not me or the church or the denomination. Without sounding too whatever, I think that the real value of the ministry I do here and now will be evaluated by God himself. I base that partly on Paul’s comments in I Corinthians 2.10-15, where he suggests that only when God calls “time” will the final word on anyone’s ministry by spoken.

That doesn’t really bother me, all that much. While I can and do use all sorts of evaluation processes and tools to help make my ministry as effective as I can make it, I recognize that God has the final say and I am responsible for doing the best I can with the tools I have and the time I have—and am also responsible for making sure that I keep open to his leading because he knows where it all needs to go much better than I do.

It’s probably good that I like woodworking because that means there is at least some place where I can see clearly what I am accomplishing.

May the peace of God be with you.

YEAR END REVIEWS

One of my Christmas gifts every year for the past few years is a subscription to a science magazine.  I think it was a desperation gift when our son first gave it but it was and is a deeply appreciated part of my Christmas and the rest of the year.  And, because of the way magazines get published, I had the January issue in early December.

I look forward to that issue because it summarizes the top scientific stories and issues for the past year.  When I read through the issue, I am reminded of some things I knew of, I discover some things that I didn’t hear about and I end up feeling like I know something more than before I read the magazine.

And the magazine publishers are not alone–almost everyone does a year end review.  News programs review the top stories; various musical styles do their top 100 for the year; movies get rated  from best to worst–everyone seems to want to review the year.

So, I sometimes think I should review my year–but what should I include in the review?  What parts of my life do I want to look over and rate?  I suppose I could do a top ten sermons list–but truthfully, when I finish a sermon, I am pretty much done with it, except for the occasional discussion that it sparks at the following week’s Bible study.  Going back and re-reading them to rate them isn’t all that appealing to me.

I do have to do something of a work review for the churchs’ annual meetings but that tends to be a statistical report with some ideas and suggestions and is sometimes hard to do because a lot of what I do in the church is in process and can’t really be measured or evaluated on a chronological basis.

I could do some personal review but that sometimes takes on a negative slant:  the weight I didn’t lose, the bike rides I didn’t  take; the people I didn’t get to spend time with; the books that are still waiting to be read.  The things I accomplished, well, sometimes they don’t seem all that significant–the naps I really needed to take or the coffee I really wanted to drink or the hour of YouTube that I couldn’t pass up.

I decided a while ago that my life and my work don’t actually lend themselves to an annual evaluation.   I believe in and practice self and professional evaluation but have realized that the process works a lot better if I allow the evaluation to fit into the natural and intrinsic patterns and cycles of whatever I am evaluating.

My personal life doesn’t cycle around the January date.  My professional life doesn’t fit the New Year evaluation pattern.  Trying to do a year end review or a best of the year process ends up being frustrating and somewhat pointless.   My professional cycle, for example, actually runs from September to May, with a short and needed break at the end of December.  It makes much more sense to do work evaluations in June or July than it does in December.

Likewise, my personal life follows a cycle that is intertwined with my professional life, the seasons and when the next Star Wars or Star Trek movie will come out.  Most of those cycles don’t lend themselves well to a December 31 evaluation process.  They can be evaluated and some of them need to be evaluated but evaluating them based on the cycles they follow is better and more effective.

So, I am going to anticipate and enjoy the science magazine’s year in review.  I might listen to some of the top 100 music of the past year.  I will summarize the past year for the church annual report.  I will try to avoid looking too closely at the bathroom scales report on my after Christmas personal expansion.  But I won’t do a year end review and best of report.  I won’t make resolutions to do things better next year.

I will evaluate and plan and make changes as they are appropriate and necessary and fit in the patterns and cycles of my life because that works better for me than using an artificial and arbitrary date as a reason for evaluation and review.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE HALO EFFECT

            I was at a meeting a while ago where someone was talking about the situation that prompted the meeting and made a comment concerning her understanding of how the problem developed.  Essentially, she was pretty sure that older pastors had caused the problem.  I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the comment because I was trying to focus on the problem at hand which was and is more complex than any of us realized–and besides, I have been working on this particular problem for a long time and had no sense that I had actually caused it.

However, a friend was sitting nearby and was quite upset by the comment.  He has been in ministry almost as long as me and I heard his mutter something like, “I am tired of being blamed for everything that happened in the past.”  He had heard the words and took them personally–and when I looked at it from his perspective, I understood his hurt.

We tend to make sweeping statements that inaccurately and unfairly include a wider group of people that we realize.  Part of that comes from falling into a psychological trap that I learned about early in my university days.  Some psychology book or professor referred to something called the “Halo Effect”.  This effect has nothing to do with the contemporary computer game and had no theological base.  It refers what happens when we assume person with one characteristic has several other characteristics.

So, the speaker at the meeting recognized that the problem we were dealing with was often associated with older pastors–and was suggesting that anyone possessing the characteristic of being an older pastor was therefore also responsible for creating the problem.  Since my friend has been involved in trying to fix this particular problem almost as long as I have, he felt upset at being “haloed” into the other group.

There are a great many people who do bad, evil, stupid and wrong things.  Some of them fall into neatly defined categories.  Older white males have managed to create some serious problems over the years.  But to assume that all older white males are equally guilty of all the offenses that have been committed by some older white males is really no different than assuming that all people of a certain colour or ethnic background or age or gender or sexual orientation are guilty of whatever current evil some members of the defined group are accused of committing.

But it is easier to make use of the halo effect than it is to be honest and discerning.  It is easier to make blanket statements than it is to sort out the real causes and perpetrators and issues.  It is simpler to tar a whole group than it is to deal with the reality that people are different and unique and that one polka-dotted individual who secretly pulls the tags off mattresses isn’t a sign that the whole group does the same thing.

It seems to me that our western culture is moving in two directions, neither of which is overly helpful.  While we are becoming increasingly individualistic and demanding,  we are also becoming increasing unwilling to see others as individuals.  While we want our personal rights and freedoms to be given sacred status, we are increasingly willing as a culture to say and act as if “their” rights should be limited because “they” all do that.

Fortunately for all of us, God doesn’t lump us into groups and treat the group the same based on some characteristic of one or some of the group.  He is aware that although my friend (and I) are older pastors, we didn’t actually create the problem and have actually been working hard to change the problem.  God sees us as individuals; God loves us as individuals; God responds to us as individuals; God rescues us as individuals.

God, in fact, created us with individuality in mind–the fact that I am left-handed doesn’t make me exactly the same as all left-handed people. The fact that I am an older pastor doesn’t make me the same as all older pastors.  The fact that I am colour blind might make me wear strange combinations now and then but it still doesn’t make me the same as all colour-blind people.

God celebrates our diversity and doesn’t use the halo effect–thank God for that.

May the peace of God be with you.

LEARNING TO HEAR

Like most people engaging in a new career, I made a lot of mistakes in my early years of ministry.  I still make mistakes at this late stage of my career but hope that I have learned to avoid some of the more serious ones from the early days.  A lot of the early problems came from not knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore–I hadn’t developed a sense of ministerial selective hearing.

I was noticing and seeing all sorts of things.  This couple was obviously having a struggle in their marriage.  That individual has an addiction problem.  That teen is heading down the wrong road.  Those parents are going to cause their child serious problems.  This congregation really needs to understand their faith.  That deacon is terrible at his calling.  These people need to make more effort to share their faith.  The things I was hearing and seeing were endless and with very little effort, I could easily have waded into the deep, murky waters of ministry and quickly been overwhelmed.

Fortunately, I had some fantastic mentors who helped me discover that seeing or hearing something wasn’t the same as being responsible for it.  I learned that what I was hearing and seeing needed to be processed through some important filters that would help me determine what needed attention and what kind of attention it needed.

Among the filters I learned to use was an awareness of my limitations.  Early in ministry, as a single pastor with no children, I might notice issues in marriages and in child rearing, but the real truth is that I had no experience with either and no credibility beyond that course I took, a course that really didn’t qualify me to intervene in such things.

I also learned to make use of the filter described in the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.  Some people are deeply attached to what I consider problems.  They may be unwilling or unable to deal with them or give them up.  While I might be able to help them, I really can’t help them until they want help–to try and “fix” things when they don’t want them fixed creates problems for all of us.

I learned another filter.  This filter involves the reality that other people likely see what I see and may already be involved and my help, no matter how well meaning it is, probably does nothing more than get in the way of what the other people are doing.  If the other helpers are making a difference, I need to help by allowing them to do their job.

I also learned to filter by time.  In any given congregation, even small ones like I serve, there are lots of issues and problems and things that would benefit from someone doing something.  If I see and respond to everything, I could be busy 24-7 and arrive at worship on Sunday morning with nothing to say during the sermon time because I was busy helping people.  Of course, that would only be a short term problem because the ensuing burnout would do away with the need for sermons.

Not everything needs to be dealt with right away.  Certainly, there are some critical issues that need to be deal with immediately–but sometimes, I need to be the person who defines criticality, not the nosey neighbour down the street or the well meaning friend who tends to make mountains out of a grain of sand.  And sometimes, I even need to avoid buying into the individual’s sense of how critical their situation is.

The end result of all this filtering is that I hear a lot and act on a lot–but sometimes, the action is to postpone, delay or ignore.  This isn’t because of a lack of concern or laziness or unwillingness to do my job.  It comes because I have learned to be strategic about ministry. Not everything I perceive needs to be dealt with right now by me.  In fact, I have learned that in the end, some stuff doesn’t need to be dealt with anytime by anyone.

I have also learned to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit–opening myself to this leading has proven to be the best filter possible for me.

Because I have learned to use some filters, I am more able to respond appropriately to the things that need a response when they need a response.  I may have selective hearing in my ministry but I think it makes my ministry more effective for both me and the people I am called to serve.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

The only phone I have these days is a cell phone which is used for both work and private conversations so I always have it with me.  Normally, I remember to turn the ringer off before worship and Bible Study and other meetings.  But this Sunday, I was busy and forgot to silence it.  Just before worship was to begin, it started to ring.  Since I didn’t recognize the number, I sent it to the answering function and turned off the sound.  We began worship and it started again–this time, I could feel the vibration in my pocket.

After worship, it rang again as I was talking to one of the worshippers.  Thinking it might be important, I checked and when I saw who it was, I excused myself and answered the phone–the caller wouldn’t have called unless there it was important.  After the culturally appropriate greetings, he asked me if I had got a call earlier.  When I told him about not answering, he explained that someone had called him and after telling they had had a long conversation at the Easter worship service, asked for financial help.  He didn’t know what to do so he gave the called my number, for which he now apologized.

The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks before this, I had been at meeting with other pastors where one of the participants told us of a scam phone call he had received.  The details he shared about his call matched exactly with the details the caller had given the person I was talking to.  I was able to assure my friend that this wasn’t a real problem but was a scam and I wouldn’t be calling the person but if he called me, I would give it all the consideration which it deserved.  I think he was relieved that it was a scam–the story he was told was a real tear-jerker and while he was a bit skeptical, he wasn’t completely sure.

This call was easy to deal with–I had some warning.  But that is a rarity–over the years, I, like most clergy, have had my share of desperate sounding phone calls from people looking for help.  Some are legitimate–and while I sometimes struggle to know how to respond, I want to help and try to find ways to alleviate the problem.  But the depressing reality is that many of the calls are scams.

Some aren’t even good scams.  This particular individual had done no homework–our Easter attendance was up to about 30 but even so, a stranger would have been immediately noticed.  Another from a long time ago began his story to a Baptist pastor by saying he had been playing poker while drunk and lost all his money–not a story designed to tug on my heart strings.  Every pastor I know has such stories because we are seen as easy targets.

I think Jesus probably had situations like this in mind when he spoke the words we find in Matthew 10.16, ” …be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV).  As believers we have an obligation to help others in any way possible, anything from a cup of cold water to a helping hand on the way to reconciliation to God.  Often, helping people is going to cost:  time, money, effort, increased stress and so on.  But when we step in and become a channel of God’s grace to someone in need of that grace, we can rejoice.

However, when the person is a scammer, we can get depressed and cynical–and begin to ask questions and wonder if we should even bother.  Well, I learned an important lesson a long time ago.  If I want to help people, I have to accept the fact that I am going to get taken.  My best response is to be shrewd enough to weed out the most blatant scammers but innocent enough that I don’t cut off people who actually do need help but have a terrible story or questionable presentation.

For me, if the choice is between getting taken sometimes so that I can help people or not helping anyone so that I avoid being scammed, I am going to accept the reality that I will be scammed sometimes–but that does bring with it the more important reality that I will help people receive God’s grace a lot of the time.

May the peace of God be with you.