A GOOD CHURCH

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.

Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.

The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.

To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.

No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.

There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.

Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.

Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

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BUSINESS MEETINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

DIDN’T EXPECT THAT

The clergy in our area have started getting together one a year just to spent time talking about stuff that we all deal with. Our first session last year dealt with the poverty we all deal with and how we can deal with it better. This year’s meeting was a follow up. We were hoping to be able to develop some actual plans of action. We began with worship.

As might be expected with a group of pastors whose profession involves us in designing and planning worship regularly, nobody had actually taken the initiative to plan the actual worship. But we each had something that we offered to the process and we threw together a pretty powerful worshipful time. One of the participants chose to read an article written by a poor person living in our area.

And for me, that article produced a totally unexpected response. I came to the meeting expecting to discuss and share and plan and look at how we as a group could deal with the endemic poverty we see every day. I had some ideas and was looking for a sharing of ideas from a group of people who are good at what they do. I was prepared to deal with the issue of poverty from a pastoral perspective.

But somewhere during the story, something happened. My detached pastoral response to poverty got lost. I began to remember—not repressed memories but real memories that I knew and know are there. I grew up poor. We didn’t have a lot—my joke is that I didn’t know that clothes came new until I was in my teens. Listening to the story, which wasn’t all that much connected with my story, somehow triggered deep feelings associated with growing up poor.

I shared with the group a couple of stories about the poverty we lived when I was growing up. My stories were received with compassion, understanding and acceptance. My story prompted another of the members to be open about her story, which also involved childhood poverty. The others hadn’t experienced that but I felt that they were concerned and appreciative of the sharing—and in the end, I think the stories the two of us shared set a very different tone for our group discussion and what our ministry to poverty would and could look like.

I wasn’t expecting to be touched like that. I was prepared for a good, open discussion of the ministry realities and possibilities associated with being a pastor in a rural area with a high poverty rate. I wasn’t expecting to discover some long lost feelings and have them ministered to by a group of people who were caring and supportative. But that is what happened. I was ministered to. I like to think that I ministered to the rest of the group as well but I was definitely ministered to as I shared my stories and opened my feelings and looked at a part of my life that I am generally okay with but which obviously needs something now and then.

This was for me a God moment, a time when God through the power of the Holy Spirit allowed me the time and freedom to safely look at something that was painful at the time and which obviously still has some residual emotional hold on at least some part of my being. In general, I think it is safe to say that I have effectively dealt with the realities of growing up poor but obviously, there are a few things that are still sitting there that have more effect that I realize—or want to realize.

We went on to have a very good session and developed some workable plans to minister together. But for me, the most important part of the whole process was being able to discover and be open about a part of my experience that was obviously more of an issue that I realized. I felt heard and validated and as we moved on, there was no sense of pity or being seen differently. I was heard, what I said was appreciated, my experience and sharing became part of the matrix of our discussion. I didn’t expect any of that but God does move in mysterious ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIFE GOES ON

I am discovering the reality of something that I actually knew but am being forced to see I a new light. I am a pastor, someone whose job involves me in people’s lives at some of their worst times, as well as a few of the best times. When I am helping someone deal with the sudden death of a close relative, the unexpected cancer diagnosis, the marriage break up, the collapse of a life plan, I tend to be focused and pastoral—my calling and my personality and my faith are all focused on trying to provide whatever I can provide to help people cope.

I know that during the times I am not present, people still cope—true, some cope well and some cope poorly but they cope. When they talk to me, especially if they have requested the session, they talk and act as if the issue under discussion were the only thing in their lives. When we are done talking, well, then they go back to cooking meals and shoveling driveways and watching TV and bragging about grandchildren. (Remember, I live and work in an area of Canada with one of the highest average ages in the country.)

When we are together, the issue is front and centre and both the focus and the purpose of our session. When it is done, we both go back to whatever occupies us until the next time. Because I have multiple sessions with many people, I tend not to give too much thought to the rest of the person’s life beyond the issue. I know that they wash dishes and drink coffee but mostly, I don’t much think about their lives beyond the issue unless I see them outside of a session, which does happen quite often in our rural context.

But I see that differently these days. I need surgery soon—while it is fairly serious surgery, it is necessary to prevent some even more serious stuff. I have been letting people know that it is coming so that they can make other arrangements or recognize that our present arrangements may have to be put on hold a bit. Recently, for example, I told one of the Bible study groups that we had some breaks coming up—one because of a previously planned vacation week and the other because of an upcoming surgery.

The group wanted as many details of the surgery as I was able and willing to give; they expressed concern and promises of prayers; they assured me that I was making a wise decision. After that discussion, we began our Bible study, which followed the accepted and habitual pattern—I prayed, asked a question and we chased rabbits and opened topics and had a good time sharing our faith response to life. My impending surgery was there but we had another focus and we stuck with the study.

I am sure if the news I gave them was of my impending demise, things would probably have been different. But the surgery, although serious, isn’t likely to be fatal. I am concerned and they are concerned—but none of us really want to spend all the time up to the surgery worrying and fretting and discussing the coming surgery. We have stuff to do—we need to see if it is actually possible to finish a verse or two in our Bible study or we need to deal with the question that has been nagging one of the members since last Sunday or we need to theologize about the news headline we are all concerned about.

In short, life goes on. No matter what the issue or bump in the road, life needs to go on. Unless the bump or issue is immediately fatal, life goes on. And even when it is fatal for one person, life still has to go on for everyone else. Or, rather, it needs to go on. There are some people who can’t seem to keep their life moving when stuff hits the fan—but that is why God has called and gifted pastors and counsellors and therapists.

He seeks to work through these support personnel so that those who can’t find a way to have life go on can find the help they need to carry on. I know all that—but every now and then, it is good to see things from a different perspective.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH MEETS

I am sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. He is drinking real coffee but I have been good and ordered a decaf so I don’t have to pay the extra price of regular coffee later. We have been friends for a long time but haven’t connected for a while so the conversations hops back and forth, covering a variety of topics as we try to catch up and move along at the same time. Because we are both believers and both fairly heavily involved in the work of our respective congregations, part of the conversation concerns our church life and our faith.

I have had this meeting a great many times with various people over the years, in several countries and two languages. And somewhere along the line, a question about the nature of the meeting popped into my mind—not during the meeting because the conversation is too free-flowing and jumps around so much that most of my attention is required to keep up. But after some meeting somewhere sometime, I began to wonder about the nature of the time together.

I wondered if I could properly say that the two or three of us sitting there drinking coffee and sharing and talking could be called a church. On one level, the answer is easy: No way. We were people drinking coffee and talking. We have none of the commonly recognized attributes of a church. There was no order of service, no sermon, no offering, no singing, no membership list. We don’t meet regularly, we don’t have an administrative structure, we have never developed a constitution and bylaws. We have never developed a program, run a Sunday School, conducted a baptism—although in fairness, I do have to say that at some point all of those things have likely been topics at the coffee shop.

That isn’t a good enough answer for me—I tend not to like pat and quick answers. Actually, to answer the question, I needed to ask another question, “Just what is a church at its most basic?” That is a question my analytical, research loving self can really dig into. Obviously, the best place to start is the New Testament, where our faith is explored and described and explained. There must be somewhere where there is a simple, clear definition of what the church is.

Except there really isn’t. It seems that the New Testament is based on several assumptions about the church: it will be made of believers, the believers will join together, they will have problems and they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has a lot of good advice for the church but no real definition of the church, which probably goes a long way to explain the incredibly diversity in churches around the world and throughout history.

But there is one place where I think we have something that comes close to a basic definition of the church. Matthew 18.20 records Jesus as saying, “… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” NIV And maybe that is what I am looking for, a basic, elemental definition of the church, stripped of all the cultural, theological and ecclesiastical qualifications and requirements and all the rest.

The church exists when two or three people come together conscious of their shared faith. Their shared faith means that they aware of the presence of the risen, living Christ with them and that makes them the church or at least a church. For that time and that space, they are a church, a part of the universal gathering of God’s people of all time and space. I think this provides a very important definition of who and what we are as a church. It takes no more than a couple of people coming together conscious of their shared faith to be the church.

So, whether we need to share a consecrated Cup of wine, a blessed single serving of grape juice or a cup of coffee (even decaf), we can be the church. In this definition, the church is much more widespread, much more pervasive and much more involved in the world than if we see it as only a specific gathering meeting in a specific place conforming to all the specific requirements.

Two or three conscious of the presence of the Spirit—that gathering becomes a church. I like that lot. I will have to give that idea some more thought.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISIT

A recently retired friend invited me for a visit because another friend we both know was visiting them. I was happy to spend some time with all of them—the retired friend is living part-time in the area I serve as pastor and attends worship so I could multi-task. With that one visit, I was both improving my pastoral visit statistics and spending time with friends. That sounds like win-win to me.

All of us are or have been involved in ministry, either as pastors, missionaries or spouses of pastors. Inevitably, then, the conversation turned to ministry and we began telling stories. The friend of the friend was the most extroverted so managed to tell the most stories but we all go a chance to tell stories. Because I can’t do much in life without analysing and studying, I was keeping a sort of mental record of the stories—who told which story, which themes kept coming up, who responded to which story in which way.

The results were interesting. We were all telling stories about things, events and incidents that affected our ministry and that enhanced both our faith and our ministry. One of the people kept referring to times when God called him spend money he didn’t have—his faith commitment was always to help out someone who needed serious help. All of his stories ended with his amazement at how God had honoured his faith be ensuring that the money he spent and didn’t have was returned to him.

One of the other people present had obviously heard some of the stories before and really wanted to hear them again, to the point of asking someone to retell a particular story. It seemed that the retelling of the stories was an important part of their faith. This person also had their own stories, stories that focused on how God provided the support and help needed when they were facing scary times in ministry, like when God showed them that their step of faith in attending seminary wouldn’t result in their family starving.

I tended to tell stories of how God worked to make up some deficit in my life so that I could do the ministry I was called to or stories of how people I had taught or mentored went on to do what I considered significant ministry. Another told stories that indicated how God had provided the faith to enable them to follow in the scary footsteps of a partner whose faith was often several steps ahead of them.

At first, my analytical side was tempted to rank the stories. The temptation was to see the stories about money as less significant than my stories about real ministry or to see stories where the teller was the hero as less important than the ones where the teller didn’t look good. But I realized that this wasn’t actually a very productive avenue of thought (NOTE—I do actually process at several levels during conversations and can still maintain focus on what is being said).

This wasn’t a contest. This was a group of friends who had all spent serious time in ministry talking about the wonder of being a part of God’s work. We all approached ministry from our personal perspective; we all had different needs in our faith and ministry; we all had different skill and gift sets—but we were all still amazed that God had chosen us, equipped us and was willing to work through us. The stories were our expressions of amazement and gratitude.

And because we were all different, it is no surprise that the themes of our stories were different. God celebrates diversity. He encourages diversity. He created humanity to thrive on diversity. I don’t need other people to tell the same kind of stories I tell—I need to listen to their stories and hear how God is working in their lives so that I can grow in faith and my understanding of God, just as they can grow and develop in hearing my stories. If we all told the same story, what would be the point?

I enjoyed my visit so much that I felt a tiny bit guilty including it in my visitation statistics—not guilty enough to leave it out of the list, though. It was good to share time and stories with people I have known for years and whose lives have followed similar paths as mine. In our diversity, we enabled and encouraged each other.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

In one of the collection of churches that I serve as pastor, we have an interesting twist in the worship service. At the request of some of the people attending, we pause after the reading of the Scriptures and have time for questions and comments about the Scriptures, although that sometimes broadens to include questions about the rest of the service and things that the people attending that day are thinking about. Most weeks, we have a question or two, a comment or two and then we move on to the sermon.

Before I continue on, I need to mention here that I work hard on sermon preparation. I believe that a sermon is a specific message from God for a specific group of people at a specific point in time and my role is to be God’s messenger, discovering and understanding and delivering that message. I serve two different sets of churches and their needs are different enough that I generally can’t use the same sermon.

So, in one order of service, we have a Q&A session just before the sermon. Normally, I open the process, there are a couple of questions for clarification that I explain as best I can (sometimes, I have to postpone the answer so I can get the information needed to answer the question), a comment or two about some part of the Scripture and then we move on.

Now and then, the discussion really gets going and eats into the sermon time, so much so that I end up having to edit the sermon on the fly, shortening the message to fit into the shorter time frame that results from the extended discussion. That is okay—it is kind of an interesting challenge to condense the sermon while still getting across the basis points.

And then, there are those rare weeks when the discussion takes off and the questions and comments begin feeding off each other and the congregation really gets engaged and involved and time flies by. As the pastor and worship leader, I stand in the pulpit, moderating the process, enabling people to talk and making sure that everyone has an opportunity and sometimes helping people clarify their remarks, all the while keeping an eye on my watch lying on the pulpit (the really nice antique clock at the back hasn’t worked in the memory of anyone there).

And at some point, I realize that there will be no sermon this week—there is no way to shorten the message for the time remaining and the discussion is going so well that it can’t be stopped. The message I worked so hard to prepare is dead, at least for this week. The sermon is being delivered but not be me. It is coming from the congregation, as we share and talk and riff off each other. The discussion isn’t a distraction; it isn’t a diversion; it isn’t a waste of time—the discussion is the message that God wanted delivered that day. My calling on those days isn’t to be the preacher—it it to be the moderator as the sermon develops through the wonder of the Holy Spirit speaking in and through all of us gathered that day. The sermon I worked so hard on, well, I will deal with that later because right now, the sermon is developing in real time.

These Sundays are rare occurrences. I can’t predict them. There is no way to anticipate them. There is definitely no way to make the occur. But when they do happen, they are wonderful, powerful, spontaneous movements of the Holy Spirit speaking to us directly by speaking through each of us. We talk and share and open ourselves to God and each other and we grow. We grow because of what we are hearing; we grow because of what we are saying; we grow because we are letting the Spirit be free.

We eventually finish and I close the meeting—but the wonder of the movement of the Spirit stays with us. We all treasure these Sundays. We don’t try and make them happen but when they do, we embrace them and the blessing that they bring to us. I can and likely will preach the prepared sermon another Sunday—but the best sermon for that Sunday was provided directly by the working of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.