WHAT DO I KNOW?

I am leading worship, something I do twice a Sunday almost every Sunday of the year–I do take vacations.  I have finished the announcements, begun the worship and we are singing the first hymn.  After making sure that I have the bookmarks in place for the responsive reading and the next hymn (I am organized, not obsessive), I take some time to look around at the congregation.  I have greeted everyone as they come in and had a brief conversation with most of them but this is my first time to really see the whole congregation.

I know who is there but at this point in the service, I get to take a quick count (a relatively quick and easy job in small congregations) and at the same time, discover who isn’t there.  Some, I already know won’t be present–they have mentioned to me that they will be away because of this or that commitment.  I am pretty sure that I know the reason for the absence of one or two others.  But there are a couple whose absence concerns me.

I am not concerned because it makes the numbers look bad–having been the pastor of small congregations for many years, I don’t get too concerned about numbers until there is a major, sustained deviation from the average.  But I am concerned because I don’t know why they are missing from the worship that day.

You might think this shows that I am a controlling, nosey, busybody who needs to know every detail of everyone’s life.  I prefer to think that I am a pastor, a person called by God to provide spiritual and other input as God leads me–and being a pastor means that I am concerned with what goes on in the lives of the people that God has called me to shepherd.  Most Sundays, my big concern isn’t whether we have 17 or 20 people in worship–my real concern is whether those who aren’t there are okay.

I have the same concern for those who are there as well–but I can do something about that.  As I greet them and talk with them, I can and do get a sense of how they are doing and whether I need to plan some pastoral input during the coming week.  But when someone expected isn’t there, I have to confess that I have alarm bells going off in my mind–not level one, all out panic alarm bells but alarm bells nonetheless.

If I am really lucky, someone will mention to me that one of the absentees had company drop in or caught a cold or something equally minor.  If not, I might ask one of their friends.  And if no one knows, the person  goes on my pastoral list.  Because I am a pastor in small, rural communities, I can be pretty sure that if the person missing from worship is suffering from a major, catastrophic event, everyone will know about it and someone will tell me eventually.  But there are lots of things between minor and catastrophic that I can and do respond to as their pastor.

One of the things I know is that I am called by God to provide pastoral care to the churches that I worship with each week.  Pastoral care is a vague and hard to define concept that is often much easier to see in its absence that in its presence.  It is a calling that I sometimes get tired of–but can’t seem to ever get away from.  Even when I am not a pastor, I find myself reacting to people like a pastor–listening and watching and paying attention, looking for the clues that God helps me see so that I know how best to respond to the individual and their needs in God’s name.

Being a pastor tires me–but it also completes me.  It irritates me at times–but it also gives me a sense of purpose and direction.  Being a pastor clashes with my introverted nature sometimes–but it also fulfills an even deeper part of my nature.

I know that I am called to be a pastor.  Some days, I am not sure of much and other days, I discover that what I think I know is wrong–but every day, I know that I am a pastor and need to care for those people whom God has called me to shepherd.

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.

GROWING IN FAITH

One of the Bible study groups has been discussing the gifts of the Spirit recently.  We started talking about using the Spiritual gifts and that lead to the need to develop the gifts, which caused some significant discussion–it was hard for some members of the study to understand that we could have a gift from the Spirit and not be automatically able to use it.  In the process of the discussion, I mentioned that I have the gift of preaching, which didn’t really surprise anyone in the group.

(I am aware that the New Testament doesn’t specifically mention the gift of preaching, although several of the gifts: prophecy, exhortation and encouragement could be seen as being related to preaching.  However, I am just going to skip by the issue at this point so that I can deal with the issue I want to look at–something I don’t always get to do in Bible study.)

I then went on to suggest that although I have that gift, I am probably a better preacher than I was when I started preaching 40 or so years ago.  At that point, a couple of members of the study who had heard me preach regularly 30-35 years ago agreed with me emphatically.  The strength of their agreement caused some laughter in the group and before anyone else could say anything, one of them quickly assured me and the group that I wasn’t a bad preacher in those days but am definitely a better preacher today.

I have to confess that while I appreciated the affirmation of my point, there was a small part of me that found it disconcerting that I had changed enough in the area of preaching for it to be noticeable.  While I firmly believe in the need to grow in faith, hearing the evidence that it is happening can be a bit painful.

It can be painful because while the reality of spiritual growth is positive and good, the fact that we had to grow reminds us that we were not perfect–and maybe, more significantly at least for me, that I wasn’t as perfect as I thought I was.  Theoretically, I know that, I confess that, I teach that.  Practically, I occasionally need to confront the pride that would like my development as a preacher to have been only a minor improvement of what was an already impressive ability even all those years ago.

Tied with that is the idea that I am probably not at evolved spiritually today as I think I am–I mean, if I wasn’t all that clear about what I was back then and how far I have come, I am probably not as aware of where I am now as I think  am.   Maybe the childish things that I think I have put away (I Corinthians 13.11) haven’t really been put away.  I may have a newer, more expensive and more sophisticated version that looks better but it may still be the same thing I had before.

Fortunately, my place with God doesn’t depend on how much I grow or in what direction I grow.  That is one of the bed-rock realities of the grace of God.  But growth in the right direction does help me connect better with the God whom I serve and enables me to better do what he calls me to.  And, even more fortunately, God provides all kinds of help and resources to me to enable me to not only know the direction of my growth but also to have the strength, courage, support and all the rest needed to grow in that direction.

Whether that growth involves showing me how to become a more Christian driver, a better preacher, a more attentive listener, a more understanding pastor, a more focused researcher or whatever, God has a direction and a plan and offers me the resources that I need for the process.  I can choose to stay the way I am–or I can take the steps of faith this grace from God asks of me and continue the journey from being what I was to being what God knows and wants me to be.

Either way, God’s grace assures me that I am loved and accepted–but for me, at least, that same love and acceptance almost always encourages me to take the next step.  Following God may not always be comfortable but it is always fulfilling and worthwhile.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN TO ME!

We live in a world where we are surrounded by sound and pictures and videos–people have more methods of communicating than ever before.  The internet has added another layer of communication possibilities which allows people to communicate as never before–real-time, as it happens reports on everything potentially available to everyone, or at least to everyone with internet.

It seems like we human beings have a desperate need to communicate with each other.  We want people to know what we had for supper, where we went for vacation, how the cancer treatment is going, when the new job starts, who we care about.  And so we communicate:  we talk, we post, we upload, we visit coffee shops, we stop the pastor on the way to the pulpit.  We want to communicate and so except for a few people even more introverted that me, we look for any possible way of communicating.

But the weakness in the whole thing is that we often forget that communication is a two way process.  Communication is more than just someone speaking or writing or posting or uploading a video.  The communication process consists of me sending a message and you receiving that message and letting me know that you have received the message.  Unfortunately, my admittedly biased impression is that we all want to do the first part but don’t want to do the second part.

One somewhat cynical description of general conversation that I ran into a while ago says, “When you are talking, I am thinking about what I want to say next and wishing you would stop talking so I can say it.”  As a pastor and counsellor, one of the most common things I hear from people struggling with some issue is that no one will listen to them.  Not feeling that we have been heard is one of the great causes of pain in our culture.

As Christians, this is something that we need to pay attention to.  Learning to listen to others is a major part of the practical expression of our faith.  Ours is a community based faith and to be a healthy community, we need to be willing and able to listen to each other.  While there are some who are gifted in listening, either by birth or because of the Holy Spirit, we can all learn to listen better.  Part of loving our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22.39) consists of listening to our neighbour as we would like to be listened to.

So, how do we listen? Well, I think most of us would be wise to begin with some prayer.  We could pray a prayer of confession, openly admitting to God that we don’t listen very well.  The small percentage of the population who does listen well could still benefit from this prayer because even the best listeners aren’t perfect.

We can follow that prayer with a prayer for enlightenment–part of the task of the Holy Spirit is to teach us what we need to know (John 14.26)–and how to listen is something that we all need to know.  And then we can follow that with a prayer for the discipline to actually practise good listening skills.

It should be clear that I am approaching our poor listening skills as a spiritual problem.  The difficulty we have in listening to others seems to me to point directly to the self-focus that is the root of all sin.  We can’t see beyond ourselves and that means we can’t hear beyond ourselves.  Overcoming a lack of ability to listen is the same as overcoming any sin–we need to involve God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the process.

I am not totally sure that I am comfortable seeing my inability to listen to others as a sin–I would rather see it as a result of my introversion or my need to focus on getting ready for worship or being tired or having something important on my mind or needing someone to listen to me for a change.  But in the end, when I don’t have time or space or interest in  listening to someone else, it is because I am focused on my own stuff.  And at times, that might be okay–but when I consistently don’t listen to others, that slips into sin and I need God’s help to deal with that.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOD’S GIFTS TO THE CHURCH

            I can, if I work hard, envision the perfect church where everyone works together and loves each other as we are called to, enables each other to grow in faith, supports each other in the ministry of the church, seeks to bring out the best in each of its members, and never ever has a problem.  I can envision it–but I also realize that if such a church existed, its wonder would be destroyed the moment the very first real human being joined.  The theory of the church disappears quickly once people come on the scene.

And that is why, I believe, that God has provided the spiritual gifts to the church.  He has provided the church with the skills and abilities that we need to help the church be what he designed it to be.  As Paul describes it in I Corinthians 12.4-7:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. NIV

Paul obviously feels that the idea of the gifts is very important because he talks about them in I Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and Ephesians 4.  The various passages mention a lot of gifts and while some treat the lists as together providing the complete list of spiritual gifts, I am not sure of that–these lists may only be examples and the available gifts might be more than these lists suggest.

However, working with the lists we have provides us with some pretty impressive gifts–and among them is the gift of leadership, mentioned in Romans 12.8.  The church, as a group of people, will both want and need leadership and so God provides for that need and want by giving some people the gift of leadership.

Now, this is where I have a problem, a problem that I have had for a lot of years.  The gift of leadership seems to have become the be-all and end-all of ministry gifts in our culture.  There are more books, articles, seminars and websites on leadership that almost anything else.  And it seems like our culture wants us to assume that the gift of leadership is automatically granted to the pastor of the church, which has some serious problems and repercussions.

I remember a broken pastor sitting on my office one time as I tried to help him put his life back together a bit.  He slumped in the visitor chair, hung his head and mumbled, “I wanted to lead and they wouldn’t let me lead.”  At that point, I was operating on two different tracks.  I let him talk and helped him work out some of his feelings.

But I was also thinking about his context.  He wanted to lead the church–but I knew that congregation and knew that they already had some very gifted and capable leaders and really didn’t need another one.  They did need someone to provide pastoral care and appropriate teaching but really didn’t need another leader, especially a leader who primary gift wasn’t leadership but pastoral care.

I am a pastor and a teacher but I am not a particularly gifted leader.  As a pastor, I do at times have to provide leadership but most congregations I have served has had better leaders than me, leaders who know God’s direction for the church and whose gifts are recognized by the congregation.  I don’t need to compete with them for their job–things work best for the church when I follow my gifts and they follow theirs.

The church, any church, needs leaders.  But it also needs pastors, teachers, administrators, musicians, accountants and so on.  God, in his wisdom and grace, has provided the gifts that the church needs and the wise congregation carefully and prayerfully seeks the leading of the Spirit to get the right person with the right gift in the right place at the right time.  And that is a formula for church health whether the church is three believing  friends meeting at a coffee shop now and then or a huge mega church with a staff larger that my combined congregations.

Anytime the church or part of the church begins to make one gift more important or desired than the others, there is bound to be trouble.  When all the gifts are in balance, the church works well.

May the peace of God be with you.