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.

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BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Both the part-time pastoral positions I hold consist of small congregations meeting in old buildings that have been a part of their communities for well over 100 years in the case of newest of the congregations and well over 200 years in the case of the oldest congregation. All of them are currently struggling. We deal with a variety of issues—aging membership, declining abilities, financial shortfalls and so on.

We sometimes feel that we are pretty much alone in whatever we are doing. But the truth is that we have a wider support base than we realize. That wider support base may not consist of people who attend our worship or support us financially but that base it present. The communities around us pay attention to us and tend to know what is going on within our fellowship.

When we are being faithful and doing what we are called to do, the community knows—and whether we know it or not, they appreciate us. We are salt and light and in a variety of ways, the wider community appreciates our salt and light.

But when we are not being faithful and not doing what we are called to do, the wider community also sees that—and they don’t appreciate that at all. Instead of being salt and light in our community, enabling people to discover something about the love and grace of God, we become anti-salt and anti-light, giving the community a message about faith that upsets and antagonizes them.

They see what we are doing, they talk about what we are doing—and they are offended that we would act in such a non-faithful way. This is a reality that we in the church often forget, especially, it seems to me, when our church is small and struggling. We become so wrapped up in our perpetual and demanding attempt to keep the doors open that we forget we are being watched by a great many people whose understanding of God’s love and grace come from what they see and hear concerning our congregation.

But the wider community sees and talks and makes decisions based on what they see. When we get ourselves into a mess and end up fighting and not talking to each as we try to ensure our side wins the war over what colour hymn books to buy, the wider community sees us as flawed salt and light. We bring harm to the wider community, not just our community. Our internal mess creates a crisis in the wider community. We disappoint and hurt them. They want us to be a positive example of what faith can do and when we fail to do that, both we and the wider community hurt.

Our church hurts because we are failing to follow the path we have committed ourselves to. And the wider community hurts because the salt and light they want and need has been taken from them. They don’t have a clear connection with God, a connection that they want to have in place even if they don’t seem to pay much attention to us and what we do. The anger and disillusionment and frustration we see in the wider community when the church messes up is a sign of several things. It shows that the community is watching us. It says that the community wants us to be what we claim to be. It proclaims that we hurt them when we aren’t being adequate salt and light. We have failed our community as well as ourselves and God when we aren’t the gathered community that we have committed ourselves to being.

I am not sure that we in the church pay enough attention to this reality—and I am equally sure that a lot of what we see as resistance to the faith in local communities is a result of the fact that we have not been the salt and light we could or should be in our community. Our failure to love each other as Jesus loves us becomes a failure to our community, a failure that they feel more deeply than we or they can fully understand.

We exist in a wider community—and that community sees us and wants us to be salt and light. When we are anti-salt and anti-light, the wider community sees and reacts strongly. We have failed ourselves, we have failed God and we have failed the community.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MEETING

Recently, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to be on a committee.  Well, actually, in all honestly, I volunteered because I was convinced that being on this committee was something that I felt God wanted me to do.  I generally don’t like committees and meetings and all that but I had been working on stuff related to this committee for years and when volunteers were called for, it didn’t seem like I had much choice–this was God’s will.

So, like all good committees, we planned a meeting.  In order to attend the meeting, I would end up making an eight hour round trip.  The meeting itself lasted about three hours.  Because this was a denominational committee, something that counts as work according to my agreement with the churches I work for, I worked eleven and a half hours that day, most of it driving.

Since I did take two other people with me, the drive wasn’t all that bad–we had good conversation in the car and ended up helping each other out in several ministry related areas.  But the meeting did take a whole day and involve a lot of driving, which meant that as driver, I couldn’t work on my sermon, prepare a Bible Study, visit someone in the hospital or even take a nap.

Thanks to the Internet, our committee probably won’t meet again until our work is mostly done and we need to tie things together.  And this work is important–we are trying to address an issue that has become a drag on a lot of ministry but will involve making changes in things that have a long history in our denomination.

Since this committee was drawn from all over the geography covered by our denomination and many of us didn’t really know each other, we needed to have this meeting to get to know each other and understand each other, something that is harder to do when we are linked by electronic media that obscures a great deal of the all important non-verbal information that is so vital to real communication.

But even with all that, driving eight hours for a three hour meeting isn’t particularly efficient or cost-effective.  One of the things that I realized really early in ministry is that efficiency and cost-effectiveness are generally poor drivers for effective and efficient ministry.  And that actually makes sense.

Real ministry ultimately involves relationships with real people–and we human beings are generally not concerned with efficiency and cost-effectiveness when it comes to relationships.  Real ministry to real people is sloppy, time-consuming and often incredibly cost-ineffective.

Often, I find myself making the two hour round trip to spend 20-30 minutes with someone in the regional hospital.  A phone call to check on a possible hymn for worship can take 20 minutes.  A “brief” conversation after worship can become a half hour pastoral care session.  A walk for some needed exercise becomes an impromptu counselling session with someone I meet along the way. Ministry deals with people and people really can’t be placed in time slots and cost per minute schemes and efficient schedules.

I try to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.  Both money and time are scarce commodities in ministry and I don’t like wasting either.  But as careful as I try to be, inevitably, I end up using more time and money for some things than might appear to be efficient. While an eight hour round trip for a three hour meeting is fortunately on the unusual side, a two hour round trip for a 30 minute hospital visit is fairly common.  But if I try for efficiency by waiting until there is more than one person in the regional hospital, I will end up not seeing someone who actually needs that 30 minutes more that I need to two hours for whatever.

The day after my meeting, I kind of regretted that whole thing, mostly because I was tired and had to catch up on the stuff I didn’t get done.  But that was a temporary regret not a comment on the whole process.  Ministry of any kind has a great deal of build in inefficiency–but the irony is that allowing the inefficiency actually makes for a much more effective ministry in the end.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT–AGAIN

Because I have two separate pastorates, I have two worship services.  I have already described the morning worship on the first Sunday of Advent.  After some lunch, a brief nap and a chance to read over the afternoon service, I left for the second service.  This was not our normal afternoon service.

To start with, we had scheduled a potluck supper after the worship, something we do several times a year.  That meant the service would start later so that the supper would happen closer to actual supper time.  It also meant some extra people who come because of the meal and the chance to visit with people over the supper.  It also means that things are more hectic before worship begins as we juggle final arrangements for the supper with getting ready for worship. We also had to get the Advent Candle stuff set up, which meant scouring the building for a suitable table.

It was also a cloudy, dreary day which made the burned out bulbs in over half the light fixtures in the sanctuary very obvious.  Since the fixtures are high and hard to get to, we tend not to pay much attention to them, until we all of a sudden realize half the sanctuary is in darkness and we need to do something–except the pre-worship discussion revealed that none of us had any good idea of how we were going to replace the bulbs,

With all that going on, I was kept fairly busy before worship began and didn’t realize until just before we began that in my worship preparation the week before, I had neglected to make sure my tablet and the bulletin were in sync.  I forgot to add in the hymns to the order of service on the tablet and also forgot to add in the second special music slot.  Fortunately, those were easy to remedy.

But things kept slipping.  I announced the Advent Candle reading and sat down while the reader did that part of worship.  And then, instead of standing to announce the offering, I forgot the offering, thinking the choir would sing, which they did–fortunately, other people seem to be able to pick up after me.  I eventually got the offering in and worship continued.  But when the choir did their next selection, I stood up, not realizing they were doing two pieces.  The congregation had a bit of a laugh as the choir told me to sit down.

I was not at my best during that service.  The activity and confusion before the service combined with a busy week leading to the worship meant that I was not as prepared as I should have been going into the worship and not as focused during the worship as I should have been.  I did manage to include all the required bits and pieces, even if the order of service I was following didn’t always connect with the order of service printed in the bulletin.

Eventually, we reached the end of the service and most of us went to the church hall for our supper.  But for me, the important thing was that in spite of all the confusion and my mistakes, we worshipped.  It might not have been exactly as planned.  I might have made more mistakes than normal.  People might have been a bit distracted by the enticing smells coming from the hall.  The dreary cloudy weather might have affected some of us, especially since the lack of adequate lighting made it hard to see the hymn books.

But in  spite of all that, we worshipped God.  We prayed, we sang, we presented our offerings and we heard and responded to God’s word to us for that day.  We greeted each other, welcomed each other and enabled each other to be reminded of the reality of God in our lives so that we could together give him the worship he deserves.

I very much doubt that we will ever have a perfect setting for our worship.  I would hope that we don’t always have as many issues as we had this afternoon but there will always be something.  Our worship depends on our ability to remember the reality of God in the midst of the confusion of life.  We worship not when things are perfect but because God is present and loving and graceful in the midst of the confusion and reality of life.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

It was the first Sunday of Advent and I was ready.  The write up for the Advent Candle was done.  The sermon was ready and was what I thought was an interesting approach to the Advent season–at least it was interesting to me and that helps it be interesting to those listening, I hope.  I was ready for this.

Except, well, the reality was that I didn’t expect there to be too many people there.  We are a small group and with some of our group doing their seasonal migration to warmer climates, another being involved with a family event and others having other stuff going on, I didn’t expect too many there for worship.

I gave some thought to that during the week.  With the absolute best attendance I could expect being 4, I gave myself some options:

  • Four in the congregation would mean a regular service–after all, we have done that before and it works.
  • Two in the congregation would mean a smaller service with no sermon. We would do the Advent Candle, prayers and Communion.
  • Three in worship–well, that would be a bit harder to figure out and so I would ask them what they wanted to do.

I arrived early, as always. Someone was there setting up the Communion service.  She had also come the day before and decorated the building for Christmas.  It looked great.  We talked about a variety of things as we waited for others.  She let me know that one I had on my possible list wasn’t coming so that made three a real possibility.

Our regular starting time arrived and it was still just the two of us.  We wondered where the other almost definite member was–I tried to remember if he has said he was going to be away or something.  Just as I was thinking of suggesting we close up, we heard his truck in the parking lot.  He commented on the small numbers and took his seat.

I explained my plan, which they agreed to, including the part about no singing–the only real singer in the group really didn’t want to do a solo that day.  We worshipped.  Our worship included the Advent Candle, prayers, Scripture and Communion.  We received the offering, which really meant two of us gave our envelopes to the other person who was looking after the money that day.

The service was short and didn’t include many of the regular things we do.  There was no sermon.  We didn’t have a long discussion about the Scripture readings.  We didn’t sing.  We didn’t do the responsive reading.  But we did worship.  We spent time together, sharing our common faith and encouraging each other as we worshipped God.

Would I have preferred a large congregation, say our regular 8-9?  Definitely.  Did I feel I was wasting my time leading worship for 2 people?  Definitely not.  Fortunately for all of us who pastor small churches, God doesn’t have a quorum for worship.  He doesn’t require that there be a certain number of people present.  He just requires that we come together prepared to meet with each other and him.

I am and have been a pastor of small congregations for most of my ministry.  This was probably my smallest congregation in all those years but it was still a congregation of people seeking to worship God.  It was still my responsibility to lead them in the worship–maybe not the one that I had planned and organized but I was and am still called to lead them in worship.

I suspect that will be our smallest congregation this year–given that we have only a few services left before the winter shut-down and there are no plans for the regulars to miss any more of the services we have planned, except for the snowbirds who won’t be back until spring.

I really don’t know where God is leading us as a church or what will happen as we continue with our ministry.  We may grow.  We may continue our present slow decline.  We might, like many small congregations grow enough to keep going.  But I do know that this particular Sunday, three of us showed up to worship God and together, we did just that.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

            It might appear to anyone reading some of my last posts that I don’t spend a lot of time in worship actually worshipping.  I direct the service, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to help others worship.  I deal with interruptions either by ignoring them or working around them.  I am generally at least one step ahead of the congregation–while we are singing one hymn, I am making sure that I have the next one marked and ready.

And in some ways, it is true–I am not actually doing much that seems like worship.  But when I remember the times I have been able to attend English language worship services as a worship participant, I discover something interesting.  Often, when  I am just attending worship, I am less connected to the worship than when I am leading it.  I am less conscious of the flow of the service; I am less involved in the process; I have less sense of the other participants; I focus less on what is being said and done and I am less tuned in with the music.

That might indicate that I have some spiritual difficulties.  And that is probably true–like every other believer, I am not perfect and have lots of stuff that needs God’s help to make it better.  But I think when it comes to worship, I may not be doing as badly as I sometimes think I am doing.

For me, the point of worship is to help us re-connect with God.  God is present and active in our lives all the time but in the hectic, stressed and busy lives most of us lead, we lose sight of God.  We might feel that he has gone away but he is still present and active–we are simply not willing or able to focus on him.  Worship, both private and public, provides us with the chance to open our eyes and see the reality of the presence of God.

My job as the worship leader is to help people make this reconnection.  As I design worship, I am looking at how best to enable the people I serve remember the reality of God’s presence in their lives.  I choose Scriptures to enable this; I help select music to facilitate the connection; I develop prayers to help open hearts and minds to God; I prepare sermons to touch those things which will bring the awareness of God to the front.

And in the process of all this, I am offering myself to God to be used by him in the process of helping others worship. As I stand at the front and announce hymns and read Scriptures and lead prayers and preach sermons, I am working hard–but I am also conscious of the deep and powerful reality that I am leading God’s people in their worship of him and the only way I can do that is if I am willing to submit myself to him in the process.

My worship experience is different from that of the people I lead–but it is still worship.  I am recognizing the presence of God and my need of him in the process of leading others in worship.  That is probably why I struggle when I am simply a participant in  worship.  I am out of my element.  I haven’t had enough experience being a lay person in worship.

For now, I am the worship leader, responsible for leading others in the process of reconnecting with the God who never left.  I am also responsible for my own worship, seeking to make sure that as I lead others, I am worshipping through remembering that I need God’s help to do what he has called me to do.

Someday, I will need to learn how to worship like the people I am leading.  I am planning on retiring someday and will then be someone sitting in the pews seeking an opportunity to reconnect with God.  At that point, I will become a student, learning how to do what others have been doing for years.  But for now, I offer to God my time, gifts and abilities to be used through the power of the Holy Spirit to help others worship God.  For now, this is my act of worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80

One of the collection of churches that I serve has connections with a couple of buildings that were formerly used as part of our pastorate.  One of them we still own and the other is sort of collectively owned by the community.  We hold occasional services in the buildings but neither has been in regular use since I have been in the area and my history here goes back a long time.

For a variety of reasons, some major renovation work was done on the community owned building this past summer.  Part of the reason for the work was that it was needed but the primary impetus for the work was the desire to have it looking good for the wedding that was happening there this summer.  We decided to hold a re-dedication ceremony for the building as one of our special events this fall.

In the course of preparations for the service, several of us got involved in historical research.  Through a friend, I got a copy of a letter to a Christian magazine describing the dedication of the building when construction was completed in 1855.  Another church member dug through some records she had and came up with a list of pastors.

She brought the list up to date and then informed the Bible Study group that I was the 80th pastor for that collection of churches.  Given that the churches were formally established in 1832, that means that the average pastoral stay was 2.3 years, according to my calculator.  Practically, the average stay would have been less–there were several periods when the churches didn’t have a pastor.  When the building whose renovations we  were celebrating was dedicated for example, there was no official pastor–the church members looked after the pastoral duties.

In the 185 years of existence, this collection of churches has had ups and downs.  In their early history, they had some serious expansion.  From a group meeting in one community, they planted congregations in at least 5 other communities, complete with buildings, Sunday Schools, choirs and all the trimmings that go with active, growing congregations.  While none of the buildings are huge, most can seat 80-100.  I won’t say they can do that comfortably because anyone who has ever spent time on old rural church buildings knows that old church pews are not known for comfort.

Early Baptists seemed to believe that comfort was somehow vaguely sinful.  Couple that with the fact that most people worked hard and if they sat down for any length of time on a comfortable seat, they would fall asleep and you get a pretty good understanding of why the pews were so uncomfortable.

So, for 185 years, there have been Christians meeting in these buildings, discovering and showing their faith.  Sometimes, they had outside leadership–but never for very long and therefore never with any real consistent direction and vision.  When the average stay of a pastor is less than two years, there is a lot of changing emphasis as each new pastor comes in with new ideas to set the church and the world on fire for the Lord–or at least catch the eye of a bigger congregation.

In the end, that means that most of the credit for the survival of these congregations belongs to the people who sat in those pews week after week and whose faith expressed itself in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, they got stuff wrong.  Sometimes, they got things right.  Sometimes, they did the right thing because it was the only choice.  This particular group of churches, for example, were one of the first to call a female pastor which was a pretty innovative step for a small Baptist congregation when  it happened in 1974.

So, I am the 80th in a long chain of pastors.  I don’t know how long I will be here–I past retirement age recently and so I know that there is a limit to how long I will be here.  I hope to stay beyond the average stay.  But regardless of how long I stay, I need to remember two things.  First, the church survives because of the church, not because of the pastor.  And second, both the church and I are doing what we do so that God may be glorified and his light shine in the world.  If we do that, not much else matters.

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.