WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.

AFTER THE BIBLE STUDY

Doing Bible Study groups in the churches I pastor is an intense experience for me–and from what I hear from the participants, it can be quite intense for some of them  Since I am the named teacher of the study, I carry a lot of responsibility during the study time.  I try to keep things on some track, enough so that everyone feels they are involved and that any side tracks we take aren’t simply the desires of any one person.

I spend a lot of energy listening to and observing the members.  Because I am their pastor, I am not only trying to pick up on how well they are following and understanding the study, but also, I am listening and watching for indications of stuff outside the study:  the normally verbal individual who is silent may be wrestling with the point under discussion or they may be getting the flu or they may be dealing with the cancer diagnosis they received yesterday that they haven’t told anyone about yet.

While all this is going on at some level, I am also processing the study:  reviewing old material, asking and answering questions, seeking and receiving comments and ideas from the group, directing traffic a bit to keep everyone from talking at once, remembering the order of who speaks after the current speaker, laughing at the jokes, gently encouraging the silent to speak more and the verbal to speak less.  And occasionally, during lulls in the questions and comments, I get to insert some new material for the group to chew on.

Bible study is a busy, interactive and often fast paced process on both my pastoral settings, one in which we all learn and all teach.  But I am the teacher, facilitator, leader or whatever you want to call the person who gets paid to be there and participate.  I am also, as I have mentioned here a few times, an introvert.

And that means that I love Bible Study, I seek and encourage the high level of participation, I enjoy the time.  But when Bible study is over and I have finished with the last of the private conversations that follow Bible study, I am wiped out.

A few years ago, our two sons and I spend a week on a wilderness hike that involved me carrying a 25+ kilo pack 12-20 kilometers a day.  I was tired at the end of each hiking day–but I don’t recall being as tired after those days as I am after one Bible study session.  When possible, Bible study is followed by a short nap–and when it isn’t, it is followed by incessant yawning and wishing I had time for a nap.

One of the things I have learned about myself is that I have two conflicting realities within me.  I am a pastor/teacher, which drives me to interact with people on a deep level.  I want to help, to instruct, to enable, to encourage people as they grow in faith.  I am both driven and attracted to opportunities to teach and pastor.  But I am also an introvert.  I prefer my computer or a book or a solitary walk.  I don’t actually mind being by myself–when I talk about getting away from it all, I am normally thinking of getting away from people or at least people I need to pastor/teach.

I am probably not alone in this–many pastors and professional helpers I know are introverts so there are a great many of us living with these conflicting drives.  I don’t think that I have any earth-shaking insights about how to deal with them.  But I have learned that I need to accept both of them as real and deal with them in a practical, pragmatic way that keeps them in a proper balance.

I am a pastor/teacher so I am going to have to interact with people on a deep basis–they don’t pay me to sit at home and be alone.  I am an introvert who gets tired as a result of the interaction.  So, I care for both sides.  When I am with people, they are getting the very best I can give during that time–and when I finish interacting with people, I take the time I need to rest and restore myself.  All through the process, I am looking to God for strength, leading and acceptance, which he graciously gives to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

May the peace of God be with you.

BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE

It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips.  After raising a serious amount of  money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something.  They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.

Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry.  From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church.  Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.

There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point.  I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church:  the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically.  I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain.  Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.  I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results:  the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.

On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding.  We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation.  We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events).  Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.

I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is.  But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us.  We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools.  And that makes sense:  feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.

Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on.  It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid.  It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited.  It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both.  And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.

But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in.  I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa.  I am somewhat in favour of mission trips.  And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building.  For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry.  And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference.  The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NEW BEGINNING

            A few years ago, I was involved with some theology students who were connected with a large established urban congregation.  The congregation inhabited an older building that had originally been located in the thriving downtown core of the city.  It was an influential congregation in the city and the denomination for many years.  It was so important that students from the theological school I attended were regularly invited to seminars to help us better understand how to do ministry in an urban setting.  It was so important in the city that the chief of police was willing to come to talk to us theology students–and quite willing to suspend local no parking ordinances for the theology students.

But as with all things, the neighbourhood and church underwent serious changes.  The church membership got older; the building began to fall apart; the neighbourhood became less desirable.  Parking became both more and less of a problem–less of a problem because there were more and more empty spaces and more of a problem because cars parked near the building were probably going to be vandalized.  The building doors were locked and alarmed and visitors were carefully scrutinized.

Eventually, the congregation made a decision.  They would have to move.  The downtown location was no longer desirable and with safety becoming a significant issue for the increasingly older congregation, the future of the congregation was at stake if they stayed where they were.  They bought land in a much safer suburban location and began planning the relocation process that was vital to the future of their church.  The downtown core just wasn’t safe anymore.  How can you worship God when some street person is going to break into your car looking for anything that will help them buy drugs, alcohol or food?

The new location would allow the congregation to flourish again.  They could do real ministry, rather than hide behind locked doors.  They could invite friends to special events without warning them to bring the old car and make sure there was nothing of value in it.  They could have a new building from which to really affect their community.  They could get back to the serious business of ministry without having to worry about pan-handlers, street people, vagrants and prostitution.

Of course, this is a preacher story–this has never happened.  No church would ever think of ignoring the needs of people just outside their doors.  All churches want to do ministry.  All believers see every individual as a person loved by God and in need of a tangible expression of the love of God through the efforts of the faithful.  After all, we are called by God to be servants to God and to people.

Except that we don’t always do a good job of being servants in the messiness of life.  I think we sometimes see mission and ministry as involving only those people who would fit well in a 50s TV sitcom–hard-working, wise father; stay-at-home mother always dressed like a fashion model; 2.5 mischievous but high achieving kids and one slightly less than perfect friend who says “darn” a bit too much.  We can do serious ministry in that context–why, the work is pretty much done anyway.  Even that “darn” kid will dress up as a shepherd for the Christmas concert and will likely become a pastor.

Jesus, of course, wants these people to know about his love.  But what we forget too often is that Jesus also wants to street person breaking into a worshipper’s car to know about the love of God as well.   He wants the model family to become part of the faith–but he also wants the teen run-away who is into drugs and prostitution to be a part of the faith as well.  And his plan for reaching the model family and the street person and the teen addict is the same–he wants to use the ministry of the faithful expressed through the church.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Real ministry is messy”.  And whether our church is located in a deteriorating downtown core, an up and coming affluent suburb or a dying fishing village, we need to open ourselves to the Spirit who will lead us into the best way to ministry and serve those around us.  Moving the building to get a better class of sinners doesn’t quite seem to follow the pattern that Jesus gave us.

May the peace of God be with you.