FACTS AND FIGURES

I like facts, things that can be proven with clear and understandable rationale.  When someone makes a claim, I want to see their facts.  I am not content with “Someone said…” or “I heard…”–I want verifiable facts that I can examine and study and compare with other facts and figures.  One study or one report really isn’t enough for me.

As a result, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to a lot of the claims people make.  The latest miracle cold remedy?  Let me see the results of several double-blind studies conducted by reputable scientists and I might consider taking it.  Otherwise, I am going to rely on cough drops and warn ginger ale.  I don’t actually have studies on those but they both help me.

In many area of my life, this desire for facts and figures and verifiable studies helps me a lot.  I am not likely to take questionable medication just because someone publishes a glowing testimony.  I am not inclined to participate in a get rich quick scheme pushed by the latest charismatic financial guru.  I probably won’t buy the latest device to reduce gas consumption that has been suppressed by gas companies for years.

On the other hand, I am going to take the cholesterol lowering medication that my doctor prescribed–I have seen the studies, I know my numbers and the promised effects make scientific sense.  I am still going to get my numbers checked regularly and watch for the side effects.  I also eat a lot of fiber, since that also shows good numbers in a variety of good studies.

But there is one area of my life where this desire and love of verifiable facts and figures tends to get me in trouble.  I am a Christian and in fact have spent my working life working for and with Christians–and I have always been amazed by how few Christians share my love of facts, figures, studies and verifiable information.

One story stands out.  We were sharing in a Bible study many years ago and the talk turned to miracles.  One lady was excited to tell of a miracle she knew about.  A friend of hers was talking to someone else whose cousin’s former school classmate read of a miracle that happened to a friend of the writers’ ex-boyfriend’s pen pal.  As far as she was concerned, this was just one more example of how God still does miracles.

As she was talking, I was struggling.  As the story got  more and more involved and as the layers of distant relationships got deeper and deeper, I knew there would be a problem.  If I let it stand, my facts and figures side would gripe and complain and whine.  But if I questioned the truth of this miracle, I would be guilty of questioning the Holy Spirit, maybe even showing once again that I didn’t really have faith in God.

Well, I questioned–I mostly can’t help that.  And, according to the lady, if I can’t believe such a clear report of miracles, maybe I need to re-examine my faith. Now, I didn’t and don’t actually deny that God does miracles–I just like my miracles to be clear miracles, things that can be verified.

But the longer I am part of the faith, the more I realize that too many people think faith needs to be divorced from reality.  Any claim that a person makes needs to be treated as the gospel truth.  People like me who ask questions about the claims are mostly seen as unfaithful deniers of the truth.

But in the end, I have to be true to who I am.  And fortunately for me, God endorses my approach.  Jesus said in Matthew 7.15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (NIV).  The apostle John says in I John 4.1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  (NIV)

So, I am not going to immediately take a cold medicine because someone says it works.  I am not going to rush to invest my money because someone says they can give 300% returns.  And I am not going to blindly accept a report of God working. I am going to test them all before I commit to something I will regret or which will damage my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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FIXER-UPPER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ME AS PLANNED

I took my first course in preaching long after I had actually started preaching.  But I didn’t find the course annoying or frustrating because of that.  I enjoyed it and learned some important stuff that I have been using continually as a preacher and a teacher of preachers.  But one of the things that stands out from the course happened during one of the practise preaching sessions.

Everyone had to preach in front of the class.  It was–and is–probably one of the most challenging sermons a preacher will ever have to do.  We stand in front of our peers, all of whom are primed to critique our work.  There is a professor sitting there with a paper, making notes at seemingly random intervals.  We strive to produce an “A” sermon so hard that we probably end up with a “C” sermon.  In that sort of tense, anxiety producing setting, we all fall back on what we know works because we have seen it work.

So, one student approached the pulpit for his practise sermon.  He wasn’t the greatest student but he had some powerful stuff working for him, he thought.  He moved into the pulpit with his newly purchased black leather-covered floppy Bible held open to his text in his outstretched hand.  When  you realize that this happened in the early 1970s, you will recognize the style–this was Billy Graham’s classic preaching pose.  This student was going to wow us by borrowing some of Billy Graham’s mojo.

But I can’t really condemn the student all that much.  All of us end up borrowing stuff from other people.  I have been told now and then that some of my mannerisms in ministry remind people of some of the mentors I had along the way, something that doesn’t upset me all that much most of the time.  The whole purpose of mentors and examples is to help us develop the skills and abilities and even mannerisms that we need along the way.

There is, however, a balancing act here.  If I adopt too much of the mentor, I become a flawed version of the mentor. But if I don’t work on changing some of the things about me that need to be changed, I become an even more flawed version of the me God meant me to be.

One of my mentors was a great preacher–but rarely if ever made any kind of hand gesture in the pulpit.  Occasionally, he would lift a hand to waist level, at which point all of us who knew him knew he was really engaged with the topic and we paid closer attention.  But while I have tried to copy his preparedness, his deep understanding of the Scripture and his strong pastoral compassion, I simply can’t copy his lack of gestures in the pulpit–if I can’t use my hands, I can’t talk.  Shutting me up is simple–tie my hands.

To follow his example would take away from who I really am.  I needed his lesson on study, his example of showing compassion in the sermon, his teaching on the seriousness of what we preachers are doing.  All those things touched on areas of my life that needed work so that I could become the person God intended me to be.  I don’t do any of them exactly as he did them but his example and his mentorship were important in forming those areas of my life.  But his lack of gestures would have been a serious mistake for me to try and follow.

The balancing act is to learn what we need from others in order to become more ourselves as God planned on us being.  Taking too much from others puts a veneer of otherness on us that hides who we are really meant to be–but not taking enough leaves the holes and empty spots that need work glaringly obvious.

Billy Graham had his floppy Bible.  One of my mentors had his occasional small hand movement.  I, well, I have my tablet on the pulpit and wave my hands like I am trying to fly.  What the Holy Spirit taught me from others is both what I need to do and what I need to not do to become more what he means for me to be.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DILEMMA OR AN OPPORTUNITY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CHAOS OR GROWTH?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

For a variety of reasons, preparing sermons is a lot easier and faster for me now than it was when I first started preaching.  When I preached my sermon over 45 years ago, the preparation  process was long, agonizing and painful.  I struggled to get an idea, worried and fretted to get some substance to the idea, poured over commentaries to understand the Scripture, thought about the passage and theme consciously and unconsciously.  While I don’t think I ever actually reached the seminary recommended one hour of study for every minute of preaching, I probably came close in those early years.

Over the years, the process has become easier.  I don’t actually need to do as much research–I have read and written on enough of the Bible in my ministry that research is more to check and make sure I am on the right track, not a search for the real meaning.  I learned early in ministry that a good sermon must touch the lives of the people I work with and that insight removed a lot of the stress and time associated with finding topics and developing them–because my sermons are based on the real needs of real people in real churches, I generally have a lot more ideas than I need and the occasional struggle I have in that area concerns which idea to use for this series.

As a result of a couple of really stressful and busy weeks, I discovered that I can go from a vague idea to a finished, ready to preach sermon manuscript in about 90 minutes, as long as I am preaching in English–desperation sermons in Kiswahili take about twice that.  Now, the end result isn’t always pretty, doesn’t have the style or polish I would like but as the old saying goes, “They will preach” and some days, that is a major accomplishment.

Since I am a part time pastor for two different church settings and need two different sermons each week, I have a shorter preparation process than I would like.  But I still put in a significant block of my part time hours preparing sermons.  I still work hard on the process, even if it takes a shorter time than most recommend and that I would like under ideal conditions.  I take preaching seriously and give every sermon the best I can give it before I take it to the pulpit.

In one of the pastorates, we introduced a new element in our worship service at the request of the congregation.  When  I finish reading the Scriptures, there is an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the Scriptures or anything somewhat related to the Scriptures.  Many times, these are short questions for clarification, brief words of appreciation for the message of the passage or personal applications of the verses.

But occasionally, the questions and comments take off as the congregation begins seriously getting into the passage.  We begin with questions, move on to comments and other questions, slip into personal illustrations, follow faint tracks into other issues, bounce ideas off each other, ignite deep thoughts in other members.  The discussion goes on and on.  My job is to try to answer some of the questions (remember the years of commentary reading and other research?), moderate the discussion, help people clarify their thoughts and encourage those who obviously want to speak but are hesitant for some reason.

Time slips by as we work together discovering the Holy Spirit’s message for us from the chosen passage.  And one level of my mind is monitoring my watch, which is lying on the pulpit before me–and at some point, I realize that the sermon I worked so hard to prepare isn’t going to get preached today.  Sometimes, I don’t get to it at all.  More often, I get to strip it down to a Readers’ Digest version.  But all the work, all the effort–well, I could have skipped it.

But I don’t and won’t.  I love the Sundays when the discussion takes off.  It says to me that the Scripture and direction I was working on have really touched something in the congregation and the work I put into sermon preparation has become background for the congregation as we together prepare the real sermon for that day.  I may or may not ever use the sermon I prepared as I prepared it–but as a congregation, we had a real sermon, prepared by us for us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING TIRED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

ENDING WELL

I am a pastor who has spent my entire career working with small congregations.  The largest average attendance I ever remember having was in the neighbourhood of 50 or so, depending of course on the proximity of the latest blizzard, the season of the year, the opening and closing of various cyclical events and so on.  The smallest congregation I ever served averaged 4–although we did eventually have a 50% increase and average 6 in attendance.

Although I am comfortable working in small congregations and can do a lot of ministry there, I am also aware that congregations of the size I work with are always aware of the possibility of closing down.  In the area where I live and work, I regularly drive by up to a dozen buildings that used to house churches–or the spots where the building used to stand.  Some were closed by decisions made outside the congregation–presbyteries and bishops and other bodies crunched numbers and issued decisions and churches ceased to exist.

Closing churches is a bit harder in my denomination.  We Baptists don’t have an outside agency that can close a congregation down.  As long as there is one member alive who wants to keep the church going, the church–and its building–keeps going.  Things get a bit more complicated, though, because often, people in the community whose great-grandmother was married in that church’s building get involved in the process and don’t want to see the church shut down.  Of course, they are actually trying to preserve the building–the church that inhabits a building is the people.

And so the reality is that many of us who are part of small congregations are living in a paradox.  On the one hand, we seek to be faithful to God, doing the best we can to ministry with the limited money and people and resources that we have.  We worship, we fellowship, we organize fund raising events, we minister to the wider community, we experiment, we pray, we hope.

But we are also aware that being a church takes money–and that is always in short supply.  If the building needs major repairs or Aunt Emma goes to a nursing home or dies or the big church in the next community attracts the family with our youth group, we face an inevitable financial crunch, which often gets expressed in very simple and graphic terms:  If we pay the pastor, we can’t afford to pay for the heat for worship but if we heat the building for worship, we probably can’t afford to pay the pastor.

Small congregations are very adept and very resilient and very good at finding and stretching money.  They are very good and adept at getting people to multi-task.  They are not so good at making tough decisions about their future, especially when those decisions seem to represent a step along the road to closure.

When the income won’t support full time ministry, it is hard to make the decision to move to some form of part-time ministry.  When the income won’t really support heating a very energy inefficient sanctuary in a Canadian winter, it is hard to consider moving or closing worship down.  When the church owned house the pastor lives in needs too many repairs, it is hard to consider getting rid of it.

The end result is that many small congregations keep going, dealing with the potential reality of closure by trying to ignore and avoid and pretend isn’t there.  Occasionally, the church must deal with the reality–when the sills rot out or the pastor moves on, the church has to look at the present realities and future possibilities.

And generally, the church will worry and stress and pray and come up with a solution that replaces the sills and finds a pastor.  That happens because we are talking about the church and the church has a resource that no other organization has.  We have the Holy Spirit and when we open ourselves to the Spirit, the results and consequences are completely unpredictable.

We who are part of small congregations live with the reality of closure looming over us.  But we also live in the presence of the Holy Spirit–and that means that we open ourselves to the Spirit, follow his leading and minister until we can no longer minister.  Because of the Spirit’s presence, we can live until we die.

May the peace of God be with you.

A GROWING CHURCH

One of the blogs I read regularly has been inviting me to sign up for a course that will help me take my church beyond the dreaded 200 barrier.  For those of you who don’t spend as much time as I do reading about things relevant and irrelevant to ministry, the 200 barrier refers to the reality that most congregations never grow beyond 200 in attendance.  Actually, perhaps the majority of churches in the world have far fewer in attendance than that.  But to really be a congregation of consequence in North America, a church has to break that barrier–and this course will help with that.

I am not signing up for the course.   Partly, that is because I am  not much interested in having someone else tell me what to study–I think that I have been doing ministry long enough that I can design and do my own research.  But the main reason I am not signing up for the course is that I am positive that it will be no help to me in my ministry.  In one of the pastorates that I serve, I would really like to reach 20 in regular attendance–and in the other, 30 would be a great number to achieve.  I have no problem at all with the 200 barrier–that is so far from where we are that I don’t need to spend any time on it at all.

However, the strong emphasis on growing church numbers means that my congregations and therefore my ministry are seen as somehow being less than acceptable and maybe even ineffective.  I have even heard people suggesting that congregations like the ones I serve should be closed down and the members amalgamated with larger congregations that can do some real ministry.  Fortunately, as a Baptist, the only people who can make those decisions are the members of the local congregation.

The question I keep having to confront grows out of this emphasis in numbers.  Does a worshipping community that averages 10 in worship constitute a real church?  Is it worth the effort to sustain and maintain a group of 25 people meeting in several buildings?  Is it a real ministry when one visitor represents a 10% increase in our attendance?

You might expect that as someone who has spend a whole career in those size congregations that I would automatically say yes to all those questions.  But the truth is, I would actually say that it depends.  But the dependant variables involved in the answer have nothing to do with the numbers–numbers are a revered Western measuring tool that in the end, tell us very little about the quality and character of whatever the numbers are measuring.

What makes a congregation a viable church is the nature and strength of its commitment.  If the congregation is focused on serving God where and as he leads, it is a viable church.  If the congregation is doing all it can to effectively do what God has called it to do, it is a viable church.  If the ministry is helping people grow in their understanding of and ability to practise their faith, it is a viable ministry.

If, however, the congregation is focused on surviving long enough to host the funeral of the last member, it has ceased to be viable and healthy.  If worries about money and repairs and finding preachers take up all the time and energy of the congregation, it is not really a viable church.

That doesn’t mean it needs to be shut down.  While that may be the appropriate solution for some congregations, in my mind, this is always the last and least desirable option.  A struggling, unfocused, misguided congregation can change.  With time and good pastoral care, even a dying congregation can become healthy.  It may not grow in numbers but if it can refocus itself and redirect its time and energy to serving God, it becomes a real and viable church that can and does have a positive impact for the Kingdom of God.

My calling is not to break the 20 barrier or the 200 barrier.  My calling is to help congregations realize who they are and what they are called to do and help them become what they are meant to be and do what they are called to do.  And when we do this, we are becoming the church God has called us to be regardless of our numbers.

May the peace of God be with you.